Saturday, April 26, 2014

Dead Man Walking at Madison Opera

Go. You must see this opera. I never begin a review like that, but I can not lie. If you love emotionally devastating opera, go to Madison and see the second and final performance of Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking on Sunday, April 27.

The final walk to the death chamber
Photo by James Gill, courtesy of Madison Opera
The libretto is by Terrence McNally, based on Sister Helen Prejean's book about her experience as spiritual advisor to a man convicted of a gruesome murder. The work premiered at San Francisco Opera in 2000, and has had many successful productions in North America, Europe and Australia. It is unusual for a contemporary work, particularly one with such a sensitive subject, to become so popular. It's also unusual for the work to be successful in smaller cities such as Eugene, Tulsa, and Fort Worth. (Forth Worth Opera owns the production Madison presented.) Madison Opera is to be commended for presenting this work, and for the skillful marketing and ancillary programming campaign they have presented. I regret not being able to see any of the presentations leading up to Friday night's opening, and not being able to stay for the question and answer session after the show. (I had an early Saturday flight.)

Michael Mayes played convicted murderer Joseph De Rocher. Through his powerful performance, as well as the finely crafted libretto and score, our perception of Joseph transforms from monster to man tortured by rage and self contempt, and we feel sympathy for his suffering alongside the suffering of his victims and their families. Mr. Mayes has a beautiful instrument, which he used quite skillfully in acting the role vocally, just as skillfully as he used his huge stage presence in acting the role physically.

Daniela Mack and Michael Mayes
Photo by James Gill,
 Courtesy of Madison Opera
Daniela Mack showed us Sister Helen's growth from a woman who isn't quite sure what she's gotten herself into to a strong and confident woman of faith. We see her initial fear of Joseph grow into both sympathy and strength, until she is able to both stand up to him and forgive him for his heinous deeds. Miss Mack has an impressive list of lyric mezzo-soprano credits and upcoming performances, and I'd love to see and hear her in any of those roles.

Susanne Mentzer's performance as Joseph's mother was heart-wrenching. Mrs. De Rocher is not an educated woman, and plainly not of the same socio-economic class as the families of the victims, but she eloquently speaks at her son's pardon hearing, wondering how his death can make anything right for anyone. She firmly wants to believe her son is not guilty, and will not listen to his apologies. And Ms. Mentzer sings the role with confidence and beauty.

Emotionally stunning scenes abound. The quintet of parents, beginning with the parents of the two murdered teenagers, then joined by Mrs. De Rocher, brings tears to the eyes in memory. Joseph's scene alone in his cell, when he is told a date has been set for his execution, is amazingly powerful. (The word powerful can not be overused in discussing Mr. Mayes as Joseph De Rocher.) The scene in which Joseph finally confesses the truth to Sister Helen took my breath away, as did the full ensemble scene singing The Lord's Prayer as he is walked to the death chamber, and his actual execution. I can write no more without sobbing.

The supporting cast is very large. I must single out Karen Slack as Sister Rose, Jeffrey Beruan (whom I've praised for his work at Caramoor) as the prison warden, Clay Hilley as the prison chaplain and Alan Dunbar as Owen Hart, father of the young girl who was murdered, for fine performances. The remaining supporting cast all deserve more praise than I have space or time to give. The choruses, both adult and children, performed with confidence and dexterity. Artistic Director John DeMain has conducted Dead Man Walking in other productions, and it showed in his shaping of the opera as a whole.

Visually, the show was stark and beautiful. Harry Frehner's sets and Marcus Dilliard's lighting effectively suggested the actual settings while also reminding one of the constant prison theme. Director Kristine McIntyre brought touching performances from major and supporting cast alike, and was very good at traffic control.

Once again, I say go. This is a must.

Prisoners on death row as Sister Helen is led to see Joseph
Photo by James Gill, courtesy of Madison Opera

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