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Jake Heggie, Dead Man Walking (2000), live recording of world premiere, San Francisco Opera, Susan Graham, Frederica von Stade, Patrick Summers (released on January 8, 2002)
Dead Man Walking (1995), Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn, Tim Robbins (released on January 1, 2000)
Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ, The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions (2004)
Web site: The Death of Innocents
Anyone who has spent any time with nuns, especially, will know that they are often stubborn and audacious in terms of their drive to get things done. If a nun starts asking you to do something to help out, you had better just give in and do what she wants, because eventually she will get you to do it. I think that Susan Sarandon, who grew up Catholic, captured this quality perfectly when she portrayed Sister Helen in the movie (partial credit should go to her husband, Tim Robbins, who wrote the screenplay, too). At her first interview with Matthew Poncelet, as the convict is named in the film, Sarandon's Sister Helen reacts to his sexual advances with an incredulous laugh: "Look at you." It's a great moment, without even addressing the insult to her religious vows, she cuts him down and puts him in his place. The same scene in Terence McNally's excellent libretto does not have the same punch.
Tim Smith, Writer of 'Dead Man Walking' wanted opera to stress redemption (Baltimore Sun, March 5)
In Act I, there is a compelling scene for male chorus ("Woman on the tier!") as Sister Helen walks through the death row corridor of the prison. Over the course of operatic history, composers have approached the operatic chorus in many different ways, but few have decided to do without it altogether. Heggie's scene is a dramatic and sensible use of the chorus. Heggie also created some effective ensembles, the legacy of Mozart and Verdi, especially the sextet at the end of Act I ("You don't know what it's like to bear a child"), combining the parents of the murdered boy and girl with Sister Helen and Joe's mother, as the family members wait for the decision of the parole board: they vote to go ahead with the execution. I also admire the Act II duet between Sister Rose and Sister Helen ("Sometimes forgiveness is in the smallest gesture"), in which the restless Sister Helen obsesses about her dreams and worries in the middle of the night. (This is the duet I heard at the Renwick Gallery, sung radiantly by Leslie Mutchler and Christina Martos.)
The pieces marked "arias," I have to admit, are less pleasing to my ear, and one major failure of the opera is the music for Sister Helen's hymn ("He will gather us around"), which returns a number of times throughout the opera. It would have been good for Heggie to have created something exquisite for this, but I tired of that music rather quickly. Susan Graham's Sister Helen and Frederica von Stade's Mrs. de Rocher are superbly drawn characters musically. I am less sure about Joseph de Rocher, which is not necessarily John Packard's fault. Music should be able, more or less instantly, to ennoble any villain, no matter how despicable, and I don't know if Heggie really took full advantage of that power. As far as operatic executions go (Cavaradossi in Tosca, Siegmund in Die Walküre, Billy Budd, the nuns in Dialogues of the Carmelites), this is not particularly chilling, I found, because there is so little happening musically. I had the same reaction to the famous announcement that the condemned man is on his way to execution, from which the work takes its name. Opera is opera because singing is more powerful declamation than speech. Having the guard simply shout "Dead man walking!" and having the execution sounds be only the clicks and beeps of the medical machinery betray that fundamental rule. Would it be more dramatic if Violetta shouted the words "Oh gioia!" before she collapsed instead of what Verdi gave her to sing in La Traviata?
There was a recent performance of highlights from Dead Man Walking at Trinity Church in Manhattan, mentioned by Steve Smith at Night after Night. Mirabile dictu, there is a Webcast of that performance, with a top-notch cast, available at the church's Web Site. Even if you cannot see one of the Baltimore performances, take a look. If you're in a hurry, fast-forward past the speeches by Sister Helen and others.