Dead Man Walking
Score by Jake Heggie and libretto by Terrance McNally

Bulletin, 19 August 2003, pp. 66.

Dead Man Walking began as a memoir by Sister Helen Prejean, became a movie and then an opera. The publicity for the production by the State Opera of South Australia has built on this awareness of a vicious murderer, Joe de Rocher, being led down a death-walk confession by Sister Helen.

Capital punishment and the redemptive power of Jesus are hotter topics in the United States than in Australia. In either place, the Prejean-de Rocher affair has to be transformed to succeed on the stage. That artifice requires narrative drive, word-setting and compositional colour. Terrence McNally supplies a shapely story, economical but poetically bankrupt. Jake Heggie escapes from penning “numbers” into creating sections of score which reveal the conflict and compassion that are absent from the libretto.

Neither collaborator is at ease with the vocal embellishments essential for emotional subtleties. The orchestration slips into the flat-footedness of film music, noise in lieu of awe, banality whenever climax is sought. The death walk of the title is accompanied by a crescendo which saps our engagement from the shuffling Joe.

The prelude entrances with its breeze-like strings and woodwinds before mounting in force from sweet airs to sinister alarums. The headlights from the victims’ car and aits radio pop songs violate the forest even before the murdering rapists appear. The mood is immediately disrupted by a children’s chorus of the hymn that announces the theme: He will father us around. Sister Helen’s fulfilment of that promise provides the plot.

Joe might have been a good boy to this mama, but he as bad as he boast. He, his crime and his career are the best case for capital punishment. To sympathise with him, we must first empathise with Sister Helen. Kirsti Harms as the good sister is pert and fiery, with a voice graced d by joy and fear, playful and penitent, a variety beyond the monotonous vocal path she has to pursue. Her articulation and lightness of touch achieve the grit to carry her character through attacks from all sides.

The vocal writing begins its ascent at the outburst before the parole board by the father of the murdered girl and reaches greatness in the subsequent sextet of five parents and nun. Heggie manages small ensembles with more layers than he can inscribe in his solos or choruses. The prisoners’ chorus of Woman on the tier was a milk-and-water Benjamin Britten.

The grieving, angry parents could not be better delineated, vocally and dramatically, than they are by Douglas McNicol, Merilyn Quaife, Wendy Hopkins and Brian Gilbertson. Their need for vengeance remains convincing even as it consumes their chance for peace of mind. David Hibbard as the prison warden added to this depth of characterisation.

Some of the other minor parts suffered from attempting Southern accents that are no in the words. Has McNally never attended to Tennessee Williams? What is wanting is accent, but cadence. Only Teddy Tahu Rhodes came within a country mile of the “Black” timbre that is part of the crossed cultures of Louisiana. Elizabeth Campbell as Joe’s mama rose above the words and music to make us understand why she needs to believe the lie of his innocence. Sister Rose (Rosalind Martin) is an externalisation of Sister Helen’s conscience, reminding her of her other responsibilities. Martin moves Rose from scold to spiritual adviser, with a shift in tone which delights as it disarms.

As de Rocher, Teddy Tahu Rhodes is physically and emotionally restrained by the production. His sweet tones and clean projections allow for a depiction which convinces vocally more than it can dramatically. His experience in the role in the U.S. has added to his natural talents, yet he is never repulsive enough for the struggles that Sister Helen has with herself to prove believable.

The production imported from San Francisco Opera moves smoothly. Its lighting aids transitions, tracking moods and intensifying the anguish from Helen’s and Mama’s being forbidden to touch Joe. Sam Fleming’s costumes work by not drawing attention. The strengths of the SA Opera orchestra, under John DeMain, and choruses, guided by Timothy Sexton, made the most of their opportunities.