Last night my wife and I attended Chicago Lyric Opera’s production of Jake Heggie’s 2000 opera, Dead Man Walking based on the best-selling book by Helen Prejean and later made into a movie of the same name. This is a much belated arrival at Lyric—Dead Man Walking has had something like a dozen productions and hundreds of performances since its San Francisco premier almost 20 years ago. It is claimed to be the most frequently performed 21st century opera, a remarkable achievement for a first-time composer of opera.
We found it a moving and transformative experience, if not the most so, one of the most so since I began attending Lyric Opera which is something like 40 years ago now. The music, libretto, story, performances, sets, staging all came together beautifully and effectively. It is dramatic and affecting but neither political nor preach-y.
The key theme of this opera is transformation. In the aftermath of a horrific crime and the punishment meted out for that crime, the lives of everyone involved are transformed. This opera accomplishes something unusual in drama and nearly unheard of in opera. At the end of the opera every character has changed, is different than he or she was at the beginning of the opera.
If you have the opportunity of seeing this opera in Lyric’s production or, indeed, any production, I strongly recommend that you not miss it. It is not a work that you would want to see every week but you will not regret having seen it.
Chicago Classical Review
If you want to know about the details of the production and performers by all means read Lawrence A. Johnson’s review at Chicago Classical Review:
In addition to being the most Catholic opera since Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites, Dead Man Walking is a failsafe piece of musical theater—perfectly constructed with moments of wry humor amid the serious drama. There are a wealth of well-drawn characters throughout its large cast, and the narrative moves inexorably to its devastating denouement in the execution chamber.
McNally’s libretto deals with a host of important issues in an intelligent yet non-polemical way—is capital punishment moral, what is the nature of faith and forgiveness, and how can one find any spiritual meaning in a world of unspeakable crimes and violence.
Yet it is Heggie’s rich, extraordinarily assured score that really sells the rather downbeat story. His eclectic style naturally incorporates the vernacular, gospel music and church hymns mingling with solo arias and choruses for large ensemble. Dead Man is almost as much straight theater at times as opera, yet the dialog moves seamlessly from speech to musical recitative and back again with ease and facility. At its best, Heggie’s score rises—as with the sextet and closing ensemble of Act I—to masterly heights.
Among the three principals, Ryan McKinny made a knockout Lyric Opera debut as the condemned murderer, Joseph De Rocher. The American singer didn’t set a shackled foot wrong as the embittered, heavily tattooed convict– distrustful of Sister Helen’s motivations, cynical about his imminent execution, and steadfastly refusing to admit his guilt in the crime. McKinny is a first-rate actor, wholly inhabiting the hard-as-nails-convict. Yet his pained expressions reveal the conflicted humanity of this brutal yet tormented man, building into Joseph’s devastating emotional breakdown when he finally confesses his guilt to Sister Helen.
Vocally, McKinny was just as strong. His bass-baritone has a bit of grain in it—apt for the role—but his voice is surprisingly flexible and McKinny floated high soft notes with supple tenderness.
Read the whole thing.
At the Tribune Howard Reich writes:
Heggie’s score tells the tale more eloquently than words could, the slashing orchestral accompaniment that accompanies the crime followed by the spiritual strains of “He Will Gather Us Around,” sung by soprano Patricia Racette as Prejean. The sheer juxtaposition of these two extremes cues the viewer that “Dead Man Walking” will be investigating a vast breadth of human endeavor, from the evil to the sublime.
When De Rocher sings of “A Warm Night,” articulating his aspirations for peace and beauty, we realize that notwithstanding his heinous acts, he too feels and dreams and hopes. Even a murderer may have a bit of humanity left, the opera seems to be saying. Or, as Prejean puts it, De Rocher remains a child of God.
The most devastating musical sequence occurs toward the end of the first act, when all four grieving parents, plus De Rocher’s mother and Prejean, sing “You Don’t Know What It’s Like.” In this stunning sextet, each character gives voice to psychic pain that can be articulated but not resolved. Thus for the course of several minutes, the listener experiences anguish that these characters will feel for the rest of their lives.
Heggie’s music reflects the story’s emotional contours in consistently poetic terms, his score built on long lines, mostly delicate orchestration and a musical language that’s accessible yet not simplistic. Samuel Barber’s neoromantic lyricism, George Gershwin’s harmonic colorings and Leonard Bernstein’s rhythmic agitations course through this work, which nonetheless sounds more original than derivative. In essence, Heggie’s score defines these characters via the same gentle spirit with which Prejean approached her Death Row correspondent. McNally’s libretto somehow manages to provide religious discourse while keeping the story pressing briskly forward, and the touches of humor that McNally wrote into the script bring welcome moments of respite.
While at the Sun-Times Nancy Malitz observes:
The “Dead Man Walking” staging by Leonard Foglia is forbiddingly evocative of institutional steel and fluorescence when it needs to be. A streamlined, multi-platform set on lifts by Michael McGarty and projections by Elaine J. McCarthy together allow for seamless switching from the claustrophobia of a prison cell on death row to a Louisiana children’s schoolroom, a lakeside trysting area, a highway mirroring Sister Prejean’s anxious journey, and the forbidding prison labyrinth among spaces swiftly summoned.
But what sticks in the mind is the music’s explosive expansion of the plot at every turn. Conductor Nicole Paiement, in her masterful Lyric Opera debut, is a new-music specialist who has devoted much of her recent career to helping worthy operas receive traction with second and third productions. Paiement took excellent care of the singers, including the nest of little ones who sang their cheerful song of Christian love, “He will Gather Us Around,” with the sisters, in a scene that directly followed the profoundly brutal prologue, where two teenage lovers, frisky from a dip in the lake, are shortly overcome by Joseph and his brother, who are drunk, drugged and deadly.