Articles written for AUFBAU by Leonard J. Lehrman

AUFBAU 68:20 October 3, 2002 p.14
The Arts


A New Opera Confronts
the Death Penalty

Jake Heggie's "Dead Man Walking" [at New York City Opera]

By Helene Williams and Leonard Lehrman

The issue of capital punishment has been a critical one in deciding elections, from the first President Bush to New York State's present governor. [The only industrialized country in the world today where capital punishment is legal is the United States.] But the tide seems to be turning.

On June 26 of this year, the New York City Council passed a resolution supporting a statewide moratorium on executions, such as is already in effect in Illinois and elsewhere. Thanks for this would seem to be due, at least in part, to the efforts of Sister Helen Prejean through her Moratorium Campaign in New Orleans, her book "Dead Man Walking", and the Tim Robbins film of the same name.

Now there's an opera with the same title--the first such effort by a young song composer and accompanist from Florida named Jake Heggie, who got his start doing public relations for the San Francisco Opera. [Nothing wrong with that. The greatest Russian opera composer of all time worked as a clerk, and saw his first full-length opera performed as a benefit for a mezzo-soprano he'd been accompanying, and for whom he wrote a new Polish act. That was _Boris Godunov_ by Modeste Mussorgsky, to whom recognition came all too late to save him from death by alcoholism. Jake Heggie's future looks a lot brighter than that, with commissions galore and even an upcoming production in Adelaide, Australia.] His is not the first opera to deal with the death penalty.

There was Marc Blitzstein's unproduced "The Condemned" of 1932; his "Sacco and Vanzetti," commissioned for the Met in 1960; and Ari Meyers's "Defendants Rosenberg", which premiered in Magdeburg, Germany in 1999. But these are all political works, centering on the wrongful executions of those who maintained their innocence to the end. The emphasis in Heggie's opera is on forgiveness and redemption, rather than injustice. His characters pray, or call for prayer, even more than they address each other. One thinks of "Suor Angelica" or "Dialogues of the Carmelites," wishing only that the new opera had even a fraction of as much memorable music as either of those two masterpieces.

Except for Sister Helen, all the characters in "Dead Man Walking" are fictional composites. (Even she is fictionalized slightly: Librettist Terence McNally has her idolizing Elvis Presley.) And the executed murderer/rapist, Joseph De Rocher, is clearly, and (finally) admittedly, guilty. John Packard, who created the role of De Rocher two years ago at the premiere in San Francisco, has a slightly brash Broadway baritone, which easily rolls into a very lovely top.

The wonderful baritone Robert Orth as the murdered girl's father is another carry-over from San Francisco to the New York production, along with soprano Nicolle Foland as his wife. The character of Sister Helen[, written for mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade,] was [however created by Susan Graham in San Francisco, and] sung in this production with excellent diction [and only a slight stridency opening night] by New York City Opera débutante Joyce DiDonato. [(By the third performance said stridency was gone, the proper delicate acoustical balance having been found.)] In a nicely contrasting bit of vocal casting, the role [which von Stade did create, that] of the murderer's mother, was sung tenderly and affectingly [here] by soprano Sheryl Woods. All five of these principals turned in memorable performances, glorying in high pianissimo passages, with the well-paced orchestra kept nicely in check by conductor John DeMain. Heggie's music [convincingly] conveys irony and humor, and has many touching moments. The Act I finale aspires to the power, though without the clarity, of Copland's "Tender Land" or Puccini's "Tosca."

Drawing on blues, spirituals and Zydeco (Cajun) pop, but always tastefully, the piece may lack for organic unity, but for a first opera by a young composer it impresses nonetheless. It is a strong, well-crafted, and beautiful piece of music theatre, well deserving of its eight-city tour. It has been performed: San Francisco, Costa Mesa, Cincinnati, New York, and, still to come, Austin, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore.

[One small discordant directorial note, though: Leonard Foglia's staging differs from Terence McNally's libretto, in that the latter repeatedly alludes to a pin which the murdered girl was wearing, brutally embedded in her body. Yet in this staging, she and her boyfriend are completely nude throughout the scene, having just gone skinnydipping. Wouldn't a modification of the libretto, or the staging, to make them consistent with each other, have been in order?]

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