Isaiah Berlin, in his essay “The Naiveté of Verdi,” describes the Italian composer as “the last great complete, self-fulfilled creator, absorbed in his art … seeking to use it for no ulterior purpose.” He calls Verdi “the last naïve master of Western music, in an age given over to the Sentimentalisches “-the self-conscious, subversive “sentimentalists,” such as Wagner, Liszt and their modernist followers, whose agenda-laden art has held sway ever since.
I hesitate to put so half-formed a creative spirit as the young American composer Jake Heggie in the company of the composers of Tristan and the Faust Symphony, but Mr. Heggie’s Dead Man Walking -which has just been given its local premiere by the New York City Opera-is an arch example of the sentimentalist muse at work: opera as therapy. Based on a memoir by Sister Helen Prejean, which recounts the author’s journey from death-row counselor to activist against capital punishment, Dead Man Walking arrives as a Great White Hope for contemporary American opera: It proved a crowd-pleaser during its world-premiere run at the San Francisco Opera two years ago, and the current restaging represents the best collaborative efforts of seven American regional opera companies. The production, it must be said, is smashing, and the story of Sister Helen’s affirmation of a condemned young man who, along with his brother, viciously murdered two teenagers, retains the power of the Tim Robbins film of the same title. But as opera, Dead Man – pace the opening-night audience, who roared their approval-is a dud.
A program essay notes that Mr. Heggie and his librettist, the playwright Terrence McNally, concentrated “not so much on the political and social issues involved in capital punishment, but rather on the intensely personal issues of forgiveness, love, retribution, and redemption.” Fair enough: These themes have provided juice for just about every successful opera since the Renaissance, and besides, opera and politics rarely make good bedfellows. (Though I was happy to be spared the spectacle of fist-clenched choruses lined up on opposite sides of the death-penalty issue, I’d like to hear what Verdi might have done with it.) But even sure-fire themes require imaginative powers of conception and organization if they are to deepen our attention to a work that runs nearly three hours. Mr. Heggie and Mr. McNally-neither of whom has written a full-length opera before-command nothing like the resources for it.
The opening is stunning. After an eerily woven overture, the crime is enacted in a lakeside lovers’ lane in Louisiana. As the teenage lovers make out-both nude, with the sort of perfectly toned bodies that are de rigueur onstage these days-cryptic bursts of percussion announce the two killers’ entry from the shadows. Orchestral pandemonium ensues as one brother rapes the girl and the other shoots the boy. The girl screams; the rapist silences her with a knife. The next thing we hear is the sweet voice of Sister Helen, a wholesome young woman with Sally Field’s spunk, singing a pastiche of an early American hymn (“He Will Gather Us Around”) to a happy, multiracial group of children at her school, Hope House.
The idyll darkens as Sister Helen reads a letter from the unregenerate convicted rapist and murderer, Joseph De Rocher, who’s now on death row. (His brother received a life sentence.) “Be careful, Helen,” cautions Sister Rose, an African-American nun who has gospel fervor in her soul. But spunky Sister Helen won’t be deterred. During a three-hour drive to the prison, she sings a monologue about herself and her “marriage” to Christ-“a hothead and so am I.” If it’s all a bit glib, in the way that has made Mr. McNally’s plays about the gay life ( Love! Valour! Compassion! ) and the perils of being a diva ( Master Class ) so palatable to the Broadway unwashed, it still lays out the dramatic ground with seamless efficiency.
But from that point on, the evening moves with all the freshness of a network docudrama. We meet the suffering mother out of an old James Cagney movie who refuses to believe in her son’s guilt (she remains curiously indifferent to the fate of her other son); the purple-faced father of the dead girl, who just can’t see the greater charity in Sister Helen’s devotion to his daughter’s killer; and various stock supporting characters, including a gruff state trooper who tears up a speeding ticket for Sister Helen because he’s got a mother with cancer. Mr. McNally is a writer who prefers to assert rather than show, and just when you can’t imagine what on earth could possibly bind Sister Helen to the scurvy young killer, he supplies a doozy of an adhesive: nostalgia for Elvis Presley! (While the orchestra makes a tepid descent into R&B, the two of them intone a litany of Elvis titles: “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” “That’s All Right, Mama,” etc.) And if you think you’re not going to hear Sister Helen do an unaccompanied reprise of “He Will Gather Us Around” after Joseph finally confesses to his crime, begs forgiveness of the victims’ parents and tells his stalwart redeemer “I love you” just as the first lethal injection kicks in, you haven’t been paying attention.
A few operas have triumphed over even more thumping librettos, thanks to a great score’s capacity to suspend disbelief (two of Verdi’s most stirring operas, La Forza del Destino and Il Trovatore , do just that), but after the promise of Dead Man ‘s opening, Mr. Heggie’s music remains hopelessly inadequate to the challenges of the material. Hitherto known as a composer of art songs, he has a talent for setting poetry to music that certain celebrated ladies of the opera world-among them, Frederica von Stade, Renée Fleming and Sylvia McNair-find ingratiating to their voices. But he seems incapable, thus far, of achieving a through-written score that establishes an individual sound world of its own and gathers in illumination as it goes along. If his half-melodies which soar out of nowhere, chug-a-chug orchestral writing and frenzied massed-voice climaxes seem familiar, it’s not because they have established a sense of familiarity on their own terms, but because they echo so many superior composers, from ballet’s Aaron Copland to Broadway’s Leonard Bernstein to Hollywood’s Max Steiner.
But the cast and musicians, under the musical direction of John DeMain, delivered as though they were scaling a masterpiece. Joyce DiDonato, as Sister Helen, was a consistently sympathetic presence, and I don’t think I’ve heard better English diction from a singer in years. John Packard made a magnetic Joseph De Rocher, and Adina Aaron and Sheryl Woods gave luminous contributions as Sister Rose and Joseph’s mother. A few nights earlier, I attended the company’s opening-night performance of Puccini’s ungainly triptych of one-act operas, Il Trittico . That production, directed by James Robinson, was also superbly mounted and sung, with Mark Delavan, Maria Kanyova, Fabiana Bravo and Carl Tanner leading an unusually potent array of young singers. Despite the disappointments of Dead Man Walking , this looks like City Opera’s strongest season in years.