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WNO’s extraordinary ‘Dead Man Walking’ is a must-see

Written By | Feb 28, 2017

WASHINGTON, February 27, 2017 – On stage for just a few performances in March, the Washington National Opera’s gripping production of Jake Heggie’s newish American opera, “Dead Man Walking,” proved to be a rousing success with the opening-night audience this Saturday past at the Kennedy Center Opera House, giving operagoers ample proof that American opera still lives and could even thrive with a bit of attention and support.

Poster for the film version of “Dead Man Walking” starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. (Promotional poster, Gramercy Pictures)

Based on the eponymous nonfiction book (later a movie) by Sister Helen Prejean, with an excellent libretto penned by renowned playwright Terrence McNally, the opera tells the essentially true life story of a Catholic teaching-nun who, by attempting to offer spiritual guidance to a Louisiana death-row convict found guilty of a brutal rape and double-murder, must confront the ongoing passion of America’s still-ongoing death penalty debate.

While the Christian instincts of the opera’s Sister Helen (mezzo Kate Lindsey) are generally spot-on in her prison encounters, she is blindsided by the need for vengeance and closure expressed by the victims’ surviving family members—something she’d never considered before.

Simultaneously, she is baffled by the lack of remorse and the ongoing brutality of Joseph De Rocher (baritone Michael Mayes), the convicted murderer she is attempting to counsel—not to mention his utter refusal to confess to and repent for the rape and double murder the evidence shows he clearly was guilty of committing.

Over many years, your reviewer has been increasingly sickened by the increasing tendency of poets, actors, composers, novelists, directors and filmmakers to cram their political points of view down the throats of paying audiences who’ve come to the theater, the opera or the film essentially to get away from these obsessions for a blessed hour or two.

Soprano Kate Lindsey sings the central role of Sister Helen Prejean in WNO’s production of “Dead Man Walking.” (Photo by Scott Suchman for WNO)

Thankfully… no, blessedly, WNO’s production of “Dead Man Walking” as well the opera’s libretto and score proved something of a miracle in a 2017 where absolutely everything has been made “political.” Even more importantly, perhaps, the opera treats with reverence the centrality of moral and religious beliefs when it comes to negotiating the treacherous shoals of a controversial, literally life-and-death social dilemma in a presumably civilized society.

The opera faithfully follows the artistic mantra that many of a certain age once learned back in high school or college: when telling, writing or staging a story, the artist must show, not tell. Yes, there is an anti-death penalty bias at the heart of this story. But the complexity, sincerity and validity of the issue of the grieving families’ opposing position is not demeaned or ridiculed. “Dead Man Walking,” the opera, indeed shows but does not tell, leaving the answers up to the audience.

Of course, we’re discussing an opera here, not a moral or religious treatise. But here again, we have good news. Entirely free of the 20th century’s atonal disease, Heggie’s clearly contemporary score connects with traditional Romantic Era roots while staking out its own ground, producing an evening of musical drama that simultaneously grips and challenges the audience without alienating them.

More than many operas (though not all), the libretto for “Dead Man Walking” contributes greatly to its dramatic, emotional and musical core. Terrence McNally has distilled Sister Helen’s already moving book into a kind of prose poetry that manages to avoid needless repetitions, advance the plot with economy and also provide the opera’s soloists with plenty of open vowels that permit the musical story to flow with astonishing fluidity.

Mezzo Susan Graham as the murderer’s mother in WNO’s “Dead Man Walking.” (Photo by Scott Suchman for WNO)

WNO’s impressive cast strove to own this story, inhabiting each individual character so thoroughly and believably that the audience was irresistibly drawn into the heart of the action.

Longtime Met star Susan Graham, who sang the central role of Sister Helen in this opera’s Y2K premiere at the San Francisco Opera, returns in this production singing the difficult role of the condemned murderer’s mother, Mrs. De Rocher.

Dramatically, although dressed in cheap, dumpy clothes and at times so overwhelmed that she becomes inarticulate, Ms. Graham’s portrayal of an emotionally torn mother, both vocally and dramatically, was moving in the extreme on opening night. In many ways, her portrayal was the very embodiment of the moral dilemma that serves as this opera’s vital core.

As her violence prone son, baritone Michael Mayes was equally outstanding. Heggie’s music for Mr. Maye’s character, Joseph de Rocher, are somewhat short on lyricism but long on character, a dichotomy Mr. Mayes embraced with relish, deftly shaping his booming voice to emphasize that point. His powerful dramatic portrayal of this convicted murderer bristled with menace until the very end, again emphasizing the opera’s central ethical dilemma.

Baritone Michael Mayes is one nasty Joseph de Rocher in WNO’s “Dead Man Walking.” (Photo by Scott Suchman for WNO)

We were delighted to see one of our favorite young mezzo-sopranos, Kate Lindsey, starring in the central role of Sister Helen Prejean for the very first time in this production. Whether due to an overly loud orchestra, some opening night tentativeness in this new role, or both the above, Ms. Lindsay was occasionally inaudible in the opera’s first half and at times seemed just on the outside edge of the subtle religious vs. secular dilemmas that make her character tick.

On the other hand, she seemed to gain more confidence and conviction as the evening progressed. Her rich, expressive voice blossomed considerably in the opera’s second half, amply demonstrating to the capacity WNO audience why she’s a rising star with the Metropolitan Opera and other prestigious international opera companies as well.

This production also makes excellent use of current and former participants in the company’s prestigious Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist program. Chief among them is recent Domingo-Cafritz alumna, soprano Jacqueline Echols who sang with grace and confidence the key role of Sister Rose, Sister Helen’s friend and personal and ethical sounding board.

Numerous other roles, all key to the dramatic and musical effectiveness of this remarkable opera, were sung with power and sincerity by a current and past Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists as well as veteran singers including tenor Clay Hilley (the cynical Father Grenville), bass-baritone Wayne Tigges (a surviving family member) and tenor Robert Boucher (a bitterly grieving father).

Photo of the entrance of the Louisiana State Penitentiary, Angola, La., circa 2007, locale of “Dead Man Walking.” Image via Wikipedia entry on the Penitentiary, CC 2.0 license)

A hat tip as well to the pair of young actors, Rebecca Brinkley and Dylan Jackson, who portrayed the non-singing roles of de Rocher’s young victims during this opera’s brutally effective prologue.

The direction of this production by the company’s Artistic Director Francesca Zambello was crisp and economical, keeping the storyline moving along at just the right pace while generally positioning soloists close to the front of the stage where they could stay on top of Heggie’s passionate orchestration.

As for that orchestration and the music itself, the score received an excellent performance by the WNO’s Orchestra under the baton of Michael Christie, save for early in the first act when the orchestra sometimes soared over the vocalists.

WNO has taken a great chance this season, box office-wise, by mounting two unfamiliar American operas in a row. We haven’t seen or heard Terence Blanchard’s jazzy “Champion,” the opera that follows the career of boxer Emile Griffith and debuts this Saturday, March 4. But, having attended WNO’s production of “Dead Man Walking,” we can assure our readers that not only is this opera okay to see. It’s a must-see, offering ample proof that today’s American composers can still create compelling operas based on compelling contemporary stories that will resonate powerfully with audiences willing to take a chance on something new, different and at times controversial.

Rating: ***1/2 (Three and one-half out of 4 stars)

WNO’s first DC production of Jake Heggie’s and Terence McNally’s “Dead Man Walking” continues at the Kennedy Center Opera House through March 11. For tickets to remaining performances, ($35-300) visit WNO’s Kennedy Center web page here. Terence Blanchard’s “Champion” opens at the Opera House on Saturday, March 4, 2017 and continues through March 18. For more information, the WNO link is here.


Movie poster, Gramercy pictures

Angola Prison photo, 2007, Wikipedia cc 2.0 Louisiana State Penitentiary

Terry Ponick

Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Senior Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17