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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Dead Man Walking
Minnesota Opera
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Cardboard Piano, Frederick Douglass Now and A Steady Rain


Seth Carico and Catherine Martin
Photo by Cory Weaver
The opera Dead Man Walking premiered in 2000 and has had over forty productions since then. It is high time, then, for Minnesota Opera to bring the work to the Twin Cities. Happily, it was well worth the wait, as the current production is an exquisite work of stagecraft (the physical production originated at Vancouver Opera), performance both by the orchestra and cast, musical composition that is both modern and accessible, and narrative that manages to be at once deeply inspiring and bone-chilling.

The opera is based on Sister Helen Prejean's book detailing her experiences as a spiritual counselor to two death-row inmates at the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola, starting in 1982. The book was published in 1993 and two years later took the form of a much-praised film, for which Susan Sarandon won the Academy Award as Best Actress portraying Prejean. Her story lends itself well to opera, with its spare narrative, soaring emotions, and fundamental questions.

Both the movie and opera consolidate Sister Helen's experiences into one case, ascribed to be her first. A subplot in the movie addressing Sister Helen's relationship with her own mother is omitted from the opera, giving the latter a more linear dramatic line from Sister Helen's announcement that she is going to meet Joseph De Rocher, the convicted man with whom she has been corresponding, to their final moment together as he faces death.

The opera opens with a wordless depiction of De Rocher's crime: the rape and murder of a teenage girl, while his accomplice murders the boy who was with her. It is a gruesome, graphically staged act—so much so that opera patrons are offered the alternative of being seated after this prelude. Yet, this feels like a crucial starting place for Dead Man Walking. We in the audience witness the crime in all its horror, leaving no question of De Rocher's guilt, in spite of his protests to the contrary. We are not predisposed then to have any sympathy for him, making Sister Helen's choices seem all the more heroic, or wrong-headed, depending on how we feel about crime, punishment and forgiveness, and challenging us to question our own stance as the narrative unfolds.

In the next scene, Sister Helen, with her colleague Sister Rose, leads the children at Hope House, the community center in New Orleans where they serve impoverished families, in a spirited hymn, "He Will Gather Us Around." Sister Helen then tells Sister Rose she is going to meet De Rocher. Sister Rose tries to dissuade her, warning that she will be over her head, but Sister Helen believes that she is called to provide this service. She faces her own doubts on the car ride to Angola, with the moving aria "This Journey." Once there she faces cynicism from the prison chaplain, benign affability from the warden, and a stewpot of anger, lust, and prayer requests from the prisoners.

De Rocher, whom she calls Joe, is glad at first to see her, but quickly turns to stony hostility, and she is hard-pressed to win his trust. She perseveres, seeing him through an appeal for leniency, giving support and comfort to his mother and younger brothers, facing the bereft parents of the two murdered youths whose sense of justice demands that De Rocher be executed and who rail against Sister Helen for "being on his side," appalled that she refers to him as Joe, rather than as "that monster." Sister Helen's greatest challenge is to persuade Joe to admit his guilt, believing in the maxim "the truth will set you free," but Joe isn't buying that line. She is never caught up on the question of whether he is a "good" or a "bad" man, only that he is human and to the end remains a child of God.

Jake Heggie's score is gorgeous, embracing the broad range of feelings embedded in the story, from harrowing, nerve-biting fear, to the anguish of losing a loved one to circumstances beyond one's comprehension, to the soothing comfort of a heart that knows the truth and still cares. There is even a brief piece of Memphis style rock and roll, inspired when Sister Helen and Joe discover that they are both huge fans of Elvis Presley. Terrence McNally is best known for writing plays and musical books, with four Tony Awards to his credit. Dead Man Walking was only his second opera (he has since written two more, also with Heggie) and the libretto is outstanding, giving clear voice to each character in their own vernacular, yet always in synch with the accompanying music.

Catherine Martin is superb as Sister Helen, bringing a strong physical bearing, rich mezzo-soprano voice, and an actor's acumen for drawing out the feeling, whether grief or humor, of every line. Seth Carico, as Joseph De Rocher, is a powerhouse, his booming baritone conveying the anger and cynicism that have become his life. He portrays the physical menace of De Rocher and the stamina (doing flawless pushups between stanzas of a wrenching aria cannot be easy), yet when the moment arises, we see within him what Sister Helen calls "a child of God." One of those moments is in his last visit from his mother and two young brothers on the night his execution is scheduled.

Emily Pulley is heartbreaking as Joe's mother, with intense yearning when she testifies in court for his sentence to be reduced, and adopts a stoic face to convey love and composure during that final meeting, even as her grief radiates from her. Karen Slack is also a stand-out as Sister Rose, her soprano giving full voice to the comfort and direction she offers Sister Helen. The quartet of performers who play the parents of the slain youth—Robb Asklof, Mary Evelyn Hangley, Victoria Vargas and Andrew Wilkowske—bring the sharp pain of their loss into their musical expressions.

The orchestra produces every nuance of emotion in the score, playing beautifully under conductor Michael Christie's baton. The full-voiced chorus is especially effective as prisoners taunting Sister Helen, and a children's chorus at the start of the show tenderly sets a foundation of innocence on which the questions of guilt, vengeance, remorse and redemption are layered.

The creative team's work is wonderful, supporting without ever overwhelming the story and the powerful feelings it provokes. From the beginning, we see a prison guard behind a viewing window on a tower at either side of the stage, the guards silently pacing back and forth, their weapons at the ready. Panels slide on and off stage, or up and down, to create transitions from cell blocks to the Hope House, from De Rocher's cell to the hearing chamber—all composed of unadorned oppressive block walls, with just the minimal amount of detail needed, such as the wall clock that has its time changed to reflect the progress toward the scheduled execution. Projections are used intelligently, not as replacements for set pieces but to bring additional dimensions to the environment, along with evocative lighting and acoustically pristine sound.

I am admittedly not always pleased with modern operas, sometimes wondering if the instinct to put a given story into an operatic mold was wise. Not in this case—Dead Man Walking makes perfect sense as an opera, abetted by the outstanding score and libretto, and the stunning production and first rate performances of the cast assembled by the Ordway. Bravo to all!

Dead Man Walking, through February 3, 2018, a production of Minnesota Opera presented at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, 345 Washington Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: $25.00 - $215.00. For information and tickets call 612-333-6699 or go to www.mnopera.org.

Music: Jake Heggie; Libretto: Terrence McNally, based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean; Conductor: Michael Christie; Stage Director: Joel Ivany; ; Set and Projection Design: Erhard Rom; Costume Design: Sheila White; Lighting Design: JAX Messenger; Sound Design: Kevin Springer; Wig and Make-Up Design: David Zimmerman; Fight Director: Doug Scholz-Carlson; Assistant Conductor: Jonathan Brandani; Assistant Director: David Radamés Toro; Chorusmaster: James Hawthorne; Children's Chorusmaster: Mathew Abernathy; Répétiteurs: Jessica Hall, Allen Perriello and Lindsay Woodward; Production Stage Manager: Kerry Masek.

Cast: Andres Acosta (Motorcycle Cop), Rod Asklof (Howard Boucher), Phineas Bynum (Older Brother to Joseph), Seth Carico (Joseph De Rocher), Jennifer Eckes (A Paralegal), Nadia Fayad (Sister Lillianne), Mary Evelyn Hangley (Kitty Hart), Michelle Hayes (Mrs. Charlton), Henry Hewitt (Jimmy), Patricia Kent (First Mother), Catherine Martin (Sister Helen Prejean), Dennis Petersen (Father Grenville), Emily Pulley (Mrs. Patrick De Rocher), Tom Ringberg (Anthony De Rocher), Mackenzie Elker Shaw (Teenage Girl), Benjamin Sieverding (George Benton), Karen Slack (Sister Rose), Wm. Clay Thompson (Prison Guard 2), Christian Thurston (Prison Guard 1), Eryn Tvete (Sister Catherine), Victoria Vargas (Jade Boucher), Alejandro Vega (Younger Brother to Joseph), Andrew Wilkowske (Owen Hart), Josh Zwick (Teenage Boy).


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