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Dead Man Walking, Baltimore Opera

John Packard as Joseph De Rocher and Theodora Hanslowe as Sr. Helen Prejean in the Baltimore Opera Company's production of Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking

Photo by Mike DeFilippi, courtesy Baltimore Opera Company
Even though I was familiar with Jake Heggie's most famous opera, Dead Man Walking, I was unprepared for how powerful it would be to see and hear it in person. I shouldn't have been, based on reports from the wildly successful premiere at the San Francisco Opera in 2000, the sound of which is available as a live recording CD. Nevertheless, my experience of the new production at the Baltimore Opera on Saturday night was one of emotional exhiliration, and not surprisingly I heard many things quite differently in the Lyric Opera House than over my headphones. There were more empty seats than I would have hoped, which must be a hard hit for Baltimore Opera, already in a financially precarious position. Dear readers, let's make sure that they sell every ticket for the remaining three performances. You don't want to miss this opportunity.

This may not be an opera for younger spectators, because the story is brutal. In the opening scene, Heggie and his librettist, Terrence McNally, chose to show the rape and murder perpetrated by Joseph de Rocher and his accomplice. This is dramatically necessary, tilting our sympathies immediately toward the victims, which is as it should be. A young couple skinnydipping in the lake -- portrayed attractively and courageously by Ketryn Porter and Craig Lawrence, in their altogether -- comes back to a parked car with its headlights on and radio playing. The two men surprise them, rape the woman, and end up killing both of them in cold blood. It is horrible to watch. Furthermore, the inexorable conclusion, the execution by lethal injection of Joseph de Rocher, is shown in the same disturbing way, no music, no singing, just the click and beep of the killing machine. The language of the prisoners -- realistically rough, with a few B-words and F-bombs -- is politely edited in the supertitles. It's a riveting work but intended for mature audiences. Fair warning.

Other Reviews and Articles:

Daniel Ginsberg, Baltimore Opera (Washington Post, March 17, 2006)

Tim Smith, 'Dead Man' is accessible, unflinching (Baltimore Sun, March 13, 2006)

And Then One Night: The Making of Dead Man Walking (PBS, January 2002)
Why do we need new operas? Like all art, opera becomes more meaningful the more relevant it is to the people in the audience. As soon as Dead Man Walking shifts away from the murder, we see a chorus of school children, who sang sweetly and were well choreographed, picked up by their mothers, who could be Baltimore soccer moms. Opera can be about us, too, and that's important to see. McNally knew that the danger of this story could be its heaviness, but the libretto has strategically placed and rather funny moments to mollify the seriousness of the story just enough.

Sister Helen Prejean, who told this story, is against the death penalty, and judging by the conversations I heard at intermission, listeners who support capital punishment may be put off. Some left at intermission -- happily, not too many -- perhaps upset by the narrator's political and religious point of view. It is clearly not true that there is no sympathy for the victims in the libretto. Ironically for those who left, it is their point of view that wins out in the opera: the convict is executed. I would have thought that these opponents would have stayed to see the wheel of vengeance complete its turn. Perhaps they are ultimately afraid to realize that the execution brings no comfort to anyone, certainly not to the victims and ultimately not to their parents either. That is Sister Helen's first point. At the same time, Sister Helen also tells us, it is only the fear of his own death that forces de Rocher to admit his crime. This is not an easy story, and it does not neatly fall along one side of the death penalty issue or the other.

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Jake Heggie, Dead Man Walking (2000), live recording of world premiere, San Francisco Opera, Susan Graham, Frederica von Stade, John Packard, Patrick Summers (released on January 8, 2002)
Baritone John Packard, who sang the role in the world premiere production in San Francisco, sang with the comfort of experience, a snarling menace with his swastika tattoo. His diction is sometimes strange, revealing a certain exaggeration, but the vocal power is right where it needs to be. Patrick Summers, who conducted the premiere of the opera and is now Music Director at Houston Grand Opera, also gave an assured performance, using his knowledge of the score to guide the Baltimore Opera orchestra expertly through it. The ensemble and individual performances were all strong. Replacing Susan Graham as Sister Helen, Theodora Hanslowe brought a rich instrument, stronger on the bottom than on the top (for which Graham is also beloved), although she seemed a little uncomfortable acting during her solo moments.

Veteran singer Diana Soviero was very strong as the convict's mother, the role created by Frederica von Stade. Her pleading for her son's life at the parole board hearing and her final moments with Joseph were beautifully sung and almost too pathetic to bear to watch. The quartet of the victims' parents all gave fine performances, a well-matched group within the famous sextet. In particular, Kelly Anderson stood out as Owen Hart, a dominant presence by his height and the strength of his voice. There was no real weak link in the casting, except perhaps the male chorus, which did not overwhelm me in their Act I scene ("Woman on the tier!"). However, at the opera's final choral moment, as the voices in Sister Helen's head cause her to pass out, there was no want for sound. On subsequent nights, the minor technical problems of the prima -- a few slow, noisy set transitions, the botched amplification level when de Rocher is on the gurney in the final scene -- will surely be ironed out. Loud ovations greeted all the singers, the conductor, and the special appearance of composer Jake Heggie and Sister Helen Prejean herself. Do not miss your chance to experience opera history in the making: Wednesday (March 15, 7:30 pm), Friday (March 17, 8:15 pm), and Sunday (March 19, 3 pm). Baltimore Opera even has a reduced-price ticket program for students.

The next season at Baltimore Opera has two chestnuts: Verdi's Nabucco (just for Jens) and Puccini's Tosca, with James Morris (not as powerful as he once was, perhaps, but still James Morris) as Scarpia. The Tosca is in a production that recreates the location of each act in Rome, too, which means I will probably have to see it. Far more interesting are the other two operas, beginning with a Baltimore Opera premiere of Rossini's L'Assedio di Corinto, with Elizabeth Futral. Finally, the other spring opera will be Bedřich Smetana's The Bartered Bride, which will be presided over by Czech conductor Oliver von Dohnányi, one-time principal conductor of the National Theatre Opera in Prague. It's not everything it could be, but Ionarts is generally pleased.

1 comment:

Charles T. Downey said...

Henry, please stop beating around the bush and tell us how you really feel. I agree with most of what you wrote. First, for the machine sounds in the death scene, I made the same criticism in my post about the recording. I seriously doubt that Heggie "couldn't think of anything to say musically," but although the somber ending seems (and probably seemed to Heggie at the time) dramatic on the surface, it is unsatisfying, as you state.

Relevance irritates you, which I understand. I did not say that modern operas have to be only based on stories from our own age. I agree that the traditional stories of opera are just as "relevant" as they ever were. However, I hope you see the basic point, which is that the widespread perception of opera as an outdated form of entertainment -- an assumption with which I do not agree but see the inevitability of -- could at least be counteracted by an opera like "Dead Man Walking." It is not really something "ripped from the headlines," but it does at least draw from recent history. That was all I meant to say.

Thanks, as always, for the perceptive and critical comment.