By Peter Jacobi
Prepare to be stunned. The work itself is powerful. The production matches.
Composer Jake Heggie’s opera, “Dead Man Walking,” is more than worthy of the widespread and positive attention it has received since its premiere at the San Francisco Opera in 2000. Indiana University Opera Theater’s presentation of “Dead Man Walking,” staged this past weekend in the Musical Arts Center, offers an honest and electrifying account of Heggie’s work, which tells a story that needs to be retold as an opera that needs to be experienced.
The story is that of a nun, Sister Helen Prejean, who accepts the challenge of becoming spiritual advisor to a killer of two teenagers. They meet after he has been convicted and is on death row awaiting either hoped-for parole or likely execution. Parole is not in the cards for him, and the endgame journey begins for the condemned prisoner, partnered by the nun who refuses to give up on her self-appointed task of guiding him toward redemption.
Sister Helen wrote a memoir about her real-life experience in 1993. It was turned into a 1995 film, which won an Oscar for Susan Sarandon. And just five years later, Heggie and librettist Terrence McNally introduced their operatic version. It took off and, by the time IU Opera Theater determined to add it to the local repertoire this fall, some 70 productions had come before.
Now the wait is over, and the project was worth the wait. As an opera, “Dead Man Walking” is something of a miracle. Fifteen years ago, Heggie was into art songs and more modest genre than opera. But he struck artistic gold with what was his first full-scale attempt at the form. The unexpected success changed his compositional course toward opera, and he’s continued to write them to public and critical acclaim. Dramatically, Heggie and McNally’s chosen progression of scenes in “Dead Man Walking,” from the murder to the death of the murderer, compels the onlooker to travel along, nerve-wracking though the journey be. Musically, the opera is a powerhouse, with a brilliant orchestral underpinning and a vocal line that may not be pretty, thank goodness, but generates a heat that securely fits the unfolding crisis.
IU Opera Theater’s current account holds blockbuster strengths.A turntable set focused primarily on the penitentiary smoothly revolves from scene to scene so that the performance can move forward without pauses. Visiting designer Steven Kemp, with minimal scenic additions, chose to have the turntable center become the opera’s world, and an impactful choice that was.
It helped guest stage director Jose Maria Condemi maneuver his performers through scenes agonizing and scenes comforting. Before long, this onlooker tended to forget that those on stage were actors; rather, they became the characters they were chosen to be.
And what does one say about the musical aspects of the production? Visiting conductor David Neely, who recently led a Des Moines Metro Opera production of “Dead Man Walking,” made the Concert Orchestra in the pit an ensemble of motivated purpose and gave all those on stage, soloists and choristers, the guidance of an impassioned expert. The choristers, in addition, came with training: the adult citizens and prisoners by chorus master Walter Huff, the children who populated Sister Helen’s mission school by Brent Gault.
Both casts had been well chosen. They deserve kudos as individual performers and members of a team. As one of the central characters, Sister Helen, Friday night’s Rachel Evans and Saturday’s Sarah Ballman contributed mezzo soprano voices with soaring tops to match orchestral climaxes. Theatrically, they turned into a very human and committed, though self-doubting, servant of God. The role is demanding, but neither singer allowed herself to weaken as the musical tension continued to heighten.
So it was with the two baritones that portrayed the prisoner, Joseph De Rocher. Reuben Walker on Friday and Eric Smedsrud on Saturday developed his complex personality, from brutal killer to a young man with memories and the ability to fear. An extended Act 2 soliloquy was intensely accomplished. And both, surprise, had the physical muscle to do a lofty number of pushups while singing.
The cast of characters is large. Sopranos Summer Aebker and Kelsea Webb gave heartrending portrayals of Joseph’s mother. Baritone Jonathan Bryan and bass-baritone Johann Schram Reed persuasively depicted the most vocal of the victims’ parents, infusing that father of the slain girl with expressions of frustrated anger. His wife (sung by Amanda Sesler and Madeline Stern) and the murdered boy’s parents (mezzos Anne Chester and Courtney Jameson; Benjamin Rardin and Gregory McClelland) added to the volatile atmosphere. Sopranos Tiffany Williams and Leeza Yorke offered a sense of reason as Sister Helen’s colleague at the mission. Bass-baritones Andrew Richardson and Jeremy Gussin played the prison warden; tenors Edward Atkinson and Eddie Mony, the prison priest. All contributed to the whole, as did those in other supporting roles.
Add to the long list of credits: costume designer Linda Pisano, lighting designer Patrick Mero, and fight choreographer Matt Herndon.
The package — opera and production — deserves high praise.
Performances of “Dead Man Walking” continue at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday in the Musical Arts Center.
© Herald Times 2015