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Dead Man Walking

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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)
In live performance, I have heard only a short excerpt of Jake Heggie's opera, premiered by San Francisco Opera in 2000, Dead Man Walking. That was the beautiful Act II duet between Sister Helen and Sister Rose, presented by the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists in one of their programs at the Renwick Gallery (American Opera at the Renwick Gallery, October 11, 2004). My interest in seeing the whole thing staged will be sated this weekend, with the production at the Baltimore Opera (March 11 to 19). These performances will feature baritone John Packard, who sang the role in the world premiere production in San Francisco, as well as Patrick Summers, who conducted the opera. You can hear their work on the live recording of that first performance, with two singers who will not be in Baltimore this coming week, Susan Graham as Sister Helen and Frederica von Stade as Joseph de Rocher's mother. Those roles will be sung in Baltimore by Theodora Hanslowe and Diana Soviero, respectively, both well-reputed singers. I expect good things.

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Dead Man Walking (1995), Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn, Tim Robbins (released on January 1, 2000)
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Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ, The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions (2004)

Web site: The Death of Innocents
The opera, like the excellent film of the same title (Dead Man Walking, 1995, directed by Tim Robbins, with Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn), is based on a book by a nun from Louisiana. Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ, will speak on "The Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death" this Thursday (March 9, 7:30 pm), at St. Ignatius Church (740 N. Calvert Street) in Baltimore. (Sister Helen even wrote a blog, although it is now a few months out of date, discontinued after Hurricane Katrina wiped out her neighborhood.) Like most monastic religious, Sister Helen is not an extraordinary person: what impresses is that she has done extraordinary things. Her most important, most public work is her ministry to convicts on death row in Louisiana, where her religious house, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille, is located.

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.

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Tim Smith, Writer of 'Dead Man Walking' wanted opera to stress redemption (Baltimore Sun, March 5)
The opera has left most audiences rapturous, and few operas in the last decade or two have had nearly the success of Dead Man Walking, if we measure an opera's success in terms of the number of performances it gets. That being said, critical reaction has not always been as friendly. The musical style is simple, even simplistic, some have charged. Heggie got his start as a pianist and songwriter, and writing a work for orchestra was not something that came naturally. (I am not aware that he turned to an orchestrator for help, as Gustavo Santaolalla did for his score for Brokeback Mountain.) However, when you have a facility for writing melodies for the voice, as Heggie clearly does, that strength may compensate for unimaginative orchestration. (Think Rossini, Bellini, early Verdi.) The immediate appeal of Heggie's style -- basically tonal, sprinkled with affective film music dissonance -- probably explains the opera's popularity with audiences, as does his more or less traditional approach to opera as a series of pieces.

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.

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