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HEGGIE: Dead Man Walking

spacer DiDonato, von Stade, Brueggergosman; Cutlip; Houston Grand Opera, Summers. Virgin Classics 24632 (2)


Since its 2000 world premiere at San Francisco Opera, Dead Man Walking has been performed in no fewer than two dozen cities — a figure that may well make the Jake Heggie–Terrence McNally opera, adapted from Sister Helen Prejean's memoir, the most successful new opera in recent decades. The present performance, taped during a 2011 run at Houston Grand Opera, suggests reasons for the work's popularity but also exposes some significant shortcomings.

In the second of the opera's two acts,Prejean, serving as spiritual advisor to the condemned killer Joseph De Rocher — he has been convicted of rape and double murder — visits him on the eve of his execution. The two have had a complex, ambivalent relationship, but now they discover a shared taste for Elvis Presley, and they join voices to riff on "Jailhouse Rock." The incident, McNally's invention, provides comic relief at a tense moment, and the Houston audience dutifully chuckles. But it rings utterly false. Forced to dramatize the unlikely bond between their two main characters, the creators spit up a tired showbiz trope: everybody loves The King. 

Not for a second does the opera offer a convincing take on how De Rocher, very poor and very brutal, might think and behave. True, we don't demand that Aida represent the manners of ancient Egypt, or Tannhäuser those of medieval Eisenach. But the impact of Dead Man Walking depends on our understanding that the authors have taken a true story and musicalized it, and its touristy view of this central figure weakens it at every turn. De Rocher's solo at the beginning of Act II is the opera's opportunity to give us a glimpse at his soul. But instead he says obvious things ("I'm going to hell, and you didn't stop me, Sister"), and Heggie underlines them musically in an obvious manner. Philip Cutlip, the De Rocher on this recording, is an engaged, responsive performer with a baritone of impressive quality, but given nothing but clichés to play, he can't bring the character to life.

The opera is much more persuasive in its presentation of Sister Helen and her internal trajectory — her struggle to reconcile her love for Joseph's human essence with her revulsion at his crime. I would guess in fact that a reason Dead Man Walking has found such success is the appeal the role holds for singers such as Joyce DiDonato, the protagonist on this recording. To put it bluntly, Sister Helen is a diva. I mean in no way to suggest that the nun — either the actual person or her operatic incarnation — is vain or capricious; on the contrary, as presented here, she is a woman of rare compassion. But her quest toward the understanding of the nature of divine forgiveness is like that of a great singer working to achieve musical transcendence. DiDonato succeeds here not just because she is a wonderful singer but because of the kind of singer she is —one driven to create meaning through sound. The intense focus of DiDonato's art becomes a correlative for Sister Helen's religious calling. 

Frederica von Stade plays De Rocher's mother, reprising her role from the opera's premiere. The role itself is little more than a sentimental construct, but von Stade makes her a poignantly sympathetic figure. The extraordinary finish of her sound in its prime is a thing of the past, but the tone retains its familiar warmth, and the voice's very fragility serves to evoke sympathy for the woman's plight. Measha Brueggergosman brings star power and lustrous tone to the supporting role of Sister Rose, although the text in her big solo moment, "God's love and forgiveness," emerges obscurely — a rare instance in which Heggie's word settings fall short of absolute intelligibility. John Packard, who created the role of De Rocher, here takes the role of Owen Hart, father of the murdered boy, mournful and touching in his scene of mending fences with Sister Helen. (One quirk of Houston's cast is that it boasts no fewer than three celebrated Cherubinos — DiDonato, von Stade and Susanne Mentzer, flinty and furious as the mother of the murdered girl.)

This is the opera's second commercial recording; the first was caught during the work's premiere run and released by Erato. Patrick Summers is the conductor on both, and his work here is, if anything, more detailed and natural, as if the intervening decade had allowed him to refine his approach to the piece. The recorded sound here is more vivid than on the premiere recording. The set includes no libretto, but a notice on the jewel box directs listeners to Virgin's website for a PDF download, which includes production photos in addition to the sung text. spacer


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