If there are any of you out there who, after hearing the words "modern opera," scratch at imaginary scars or develop an annoying tic, I have a remedy: Jake Heggie's contemporary work from 2000, Dead Man Walking, at Houston Grand Opera.
Adapted from the book by Sister Helen Prejean about her years counseling death row inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, made famous by Tim Robbins's Academy Award-winning movie, this "journey toward redemption" has been adapted by another prize winner, Broadway's Terrence McNally (Master Class, Love! Valour! Compassion! Kiss of the Spider Woman). Walking is a relief after a long era of sitting through bad modern operas.
It's old-fashioned opera-making of the grand kind, with outsize passions, roiling orchestral climaxes, tingling choral passages, wondrous solo pieces for all the individual voices. Definitively produced with stunning sets and visual aplomb, this clever opera has a head to it, and, in a lovely nod to opera's long history, a big heart. While Heggie's music is tonal and muscularly dramatic, with a sterling and highly polished orchestration, it isn't Tosca or Carmen, so don't get your hopes too high. But with its cinematic sweep and atmospheric color, Heggie's music serves the drama superbly.
Heggie's first opera, Walking was commissioned by San Francisco Opera, where he worked in the publicity department while he composed on the side. He was celebrated for his art songs, and many high-class singers clamored to sing them. In his later operas that I've seen (Three Decembers and End of the Affair; not Moby Dick, which premiered in Dallas last April), the music, except for short, tantalizing sequences, seems emotionally removed. He illustrates the stories but doesn't compose them. Here, though, he's in the moment with a vengeance. His strong voice is a stirring amalgam of classic Americana sound: the Bernsteins (Elmer and Leonard), George Gershwin and Carlisle Floyd swirl through the work, grounding it with sturdy legs. Walking sounds like what I imagine John Steinbeck would sound like, if he wrote an opera.
Unfortunately, Walking is not Steinbeck, it's Prejean. While the sister's lifework is laudatory — her 1997 article in Salt of the Earth magazine, "Would Jesus Pull the Switch," is this opera's theme in miniature — putting her problems center stage throws the opera out of focus. Forgive me, Sister, but, as theatrical drama, your spiritual travails are not on the same level as the imminent execution of a convicted murderer and the paralyzing effects on the surviving family members. When the good sister swoons, we're supposed to swoon. When she has insomnia, it's supposed to be mighty significant. She begins to pall before the first-act blackout, where she faints at the Coke machine.
Although the character becomes tiresome, Heggie and McNally present two vibrant alternatives: Joseph De Rocher and his mother. Whenever these polar opposites are around, the opera soars. De Rocher (a dramatic composite of a number of death-row inmates Sister Prejean ministered to), unknown and dangerous, an over-tightened spring, has built-in tension. You hold your breath, waiting for him to do another monstrous act. And drab, unassuming Mrs. De Rocher is the ultimate grieving mother, enabler and denier. She needs her dreams — they're all she has. Her emotional monologue before the parole board, pleading to stop another killing, is the opera's pinnacle. The four parents of the dead youths, whose senseless murders we see during a powerful prologue, bring a palpable sense of Old Testament vengeance to counter Sister Helen's lack of sleep.
The cast is unsurpassed. As Sister Helen, major diva Joyce DiDonato, an alumna of HGO's studio program, wraps her luscious dark mezzo around Heggie's dramatic music and burnishes it with feisty presence and pinpoint delivery. Beefy baritone Philip Cutlip, as killer Joseph De Rocher, is not yet a megastar, but after this incandescent, physical performance, he's there. Anyone who can do pushups while he sings with unflinching ardor is most assuredly on the cusp of major stardom. Highest accolades go to legendary superstar Frederica von Stade, as Mrs. De Rocher, who originated the role at the world premiere. These final Houston performances are her farewell to the stage after three decades of superlative, unparalleled work, so if there's another reason to see Walking, it's von Stade. She is radiant, and supplies the necessary human heart to the opera. Soprano Measha Brueggergosman, as Sister Rose, and baritone John Packard, as Owen Hart, the father of the murdered boy, add substantial vocal characterizations that enhance the drama. But it's maestro Patrick Summers who captures the power and sweep of Heggie's music and sends it ricocheting through the Wortham with elemental, electric surges.
Heggie's opera isn't perfect, but if this is the sound of modern opera, I'm all ears.
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