OPERA - CONTEMPORARY OVERSEAS - DEAD MAN WALKING
Score by Jake Heggie and libretto by Terrance McNally
19 August 2003, pp. 66.
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.
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
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.