Sister Helen Prejean’s Emotional Book Loses Something In Translation Into Opera
Baltimore Opera’s provocative and topical production of Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking may swell its audience’s ranks with liberals who have problems with capital punishment. But be warned, lapsed churchgoers: Yes, the Roman Catholic Church is opposed to capital punishment, but the Catholic Church also believes that you probably deserve it anyway.
In her program notes, Sister Helen Prejean—the Louisiana nun whose memoirs the opera is based on—confirms that impression: “Its theme is bigger and deeper than the question of the death penalty.” Instead, the core of her story is about guilt and the quest for redemption, and, as she puts it, she insisted that it be at the center of the opera.
Maybe that’s why Heggie’s opera is a little off-key. Helen Prejean is less a character than an interested party. She had a message, librettist Terrence McNally and Heggie offered the medium, and Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon provide the dramatic prototypes. The only thing missing is a little cold, hard distance from the subject: A killer on death row for a sex crime meets a nun who is married to Jesus.
That’s not saying that this opera lacks guts; this story of a cold-blooded murderer pulls few punches. The opening scene re-enacts the murder in unforgiving detail. An unclothed young couple returns to their automobile after a midnight swim. The two De Rocher brothers find them, rape her, and shoot them both. It’s all done in silence and in full view, complete with a Ford Mustang onstage.
Then the stage opens to a nunnery, with Prejean (Theodora Hanslowe) leading a choir of young, presumably innocent children in a chorus that repeats itself throughout the opera—“He will gather us around”—and Heggie’s formula reveals itself. Walking is a fairly accessible opera woven together with themes from spirituals and popular music.
Prejean then picks up a letter, written by Joseph De Rocher (John Packard), who is on death row and hoping for a stay of execution. Sister Rose (Kishna Davis) warns Prejean that by acting as spiritual adviser to a murderer on death row she is going in over her head. Prejean responds, “There but for the grace of God go all of us.”
A sanitized version of the libretto is projected over the stage, which is unfortunate, because it’s the opera’s weak point. McNally is an award-winning playwright, with several Broadway hits to his name, but his dialogue falls flat. Take this exchange between the two nuns: “What are you getting into, Helen?” “He needs me, Rose.” “Be careful, Helen, be careful.” “I will be a bond to our savior Jesus Christ, the best man who ever lived.”
Such dialogue defines Sister Helen as a central character who is very static and a little hard to believe. If there’s a hard center to her, McNally has missed it completely. For most of the play, Prejean is a wilting mediator between Joseph and his executioners. And in an aggravating way she apologizes to both parties constantly, like a waitress who has spilled something on a customer’s lap. “I’m sorry, so sorry,” may be a valid expression, but it’s not an operatic emotion.
Meanwhile, Joseph De Rocher gets a memorable and sometimes chilling incarnation by Packard. Packard played De Rocher in the opera’s 2000 premiere, and his confidence in the role shows. His opening aria, “A warm night,” is one of the evening’s highlights. In a predatory baritone, he explains, in front of a nun, what it is he’s looking for in a woman. At the same time, he communicates a grudging vulnerability in the face of death.
If the opera had been able to maintain that tension between two characters, it would have been an emotional corker. But for the most part, Prejean remains at arm’s length from De Rocher, tossing the occasional nugget of spiritual advice in his direction and then stepping back when he threatens to bite her. Their brief foray into an Elvis impression really exposes the opera’s central flaw: The magnetic attraction between the two characters is missing here.
Musically, the evening’s most powerful performance is delivered by soprano Diana Soviero as Mrs. De Rocher, mother of the accused. Her appeal for clemency in the first act and her farewell aria to her son at the end are delivered with an emotional delicacy that leaves her on the tipping point between maternal love and fear of her son. As Owen Hart, the father of one of De Rocher’s victims, Kelly Anderson uses his powerful baritone to provide an effective counterpoint to Soviero’s pleas for mercy.
The opera’s most powerful moment comes in complete silence, however. Splayed out—or, if you like, crucified—on an operating table, De Rocher receives his lethal injection. The process is enacted onstage with torturously technical precision, and takes about five minutes. The ludicrous attempt to disguise killing as a medical process is exposed in a detail that is easy to miss 30 rows back: The attending medical technologist swabs the patient’s arm with a cotton ball before sticking the needle in his vein; apparently that’s meant to reduce risk of infection.
If contemporary opera awakens fears of atonal squeaks and blats, fear not. Heggie’s score doesn’t ruffle any feathers; in fact, you’ll hardly notice it. It remains safely in the background, with melodic motifs and emotional crescendos. Dead Man Walking is Heggie’s first opera, and at points it feels that he is trying to restrain it from turning into a musical. That effort gets a little frustrating: At moments, his characters are on the verge of rousing, full-throated song-and-dance numbers that wind up getting pushed back in the name of high art.
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