Jake Heggie and librettist Terrence McNally’s Dead Man Walking has shown considerable staying power since its premiere in 2000. In some ways, this is a rarity for contemporary grand opera, which often is premiered and then disappears. Twenty-three years on, however, it is one of the most frequently performed recent works and feels ripe for a Met production. It shares some of its themes with another great nun opera, Francis Poulenc’s The Dialogue of the Carmelites. Each opera asks: how do you live your principles, particularly when fighting against systems of power, against your personal desires and even against your own nature?
The story follows Sister Helen Prejean, who is a real Catholic nun and outspoken anti-death-penalty activist from New Orleans. She reluctantly agrees to become spiritual advisor to Joseph De Rocher, a (fictionalized)convicted murderer on death row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, LA. De Rocher and Sister Helen strike up an unlikely relationship; Helen advocates for Joseph to appeal his execution, becomes a source of comfort to him and to his family as the date approaches, encourages him to take accountability for his actions and supports him at the hour of his death.
This is serious stuff, in other words. The opera begins with a rape and double murder and ends with an execution. Ivo van Hove’s production attempts to play on the audience’s ambivalence as well as our cultural fascination with both violent crime and violent criminals through heavy use of video footage, some pre-recorded but much of it filmed live, with actors’ faces blown up, Jumbotron style, on the projectors. While I loved this technique in last season’s Zauberflöte, here van Hove’s unwieldy grasp on the production’s tone and setting, made for a frustrating evening, despite some valiant efforts from the cast.
This production vacillates between ambi-sketched in the live-action segments and moments of hyper-realist or overstylized detail which often verge into prurient melodrama in the video segments. Jan Verswyveld’s set is a vast beige box, above which is suspended a smaller beige box. There are some strangely placed windows upstage, but otherwise, it was more or less a blank slate. This was a featureless, textureless world, just filtered through southern accents that seemed to come from everywhere except Louisiana (where this reviewer grew up).
Van Hove’s direction does little to overcome the flatness of the setting. The blocking was often repetitive, with little variation in levels or depth. Much of the action takes place smack in the center of the stage. The cast, on the whole, felt under-directed, a problem which often leads to overacting as actors fidget to fill space with some sort of movement. Chorus scenes, including one where Sister Helen is taunted by inmates, consisted of slow circles around our central nun—not exactly scary stuff. The only color and motion came from the projections, which, while often striking, felt separate from the actors. Often it was above their heads, like the Jumbotron, and thus did little to take away from the underlying drabness.
The use of space—or rather the lack thereof—made for an exasperatingly static experience for much of the opera. It also meant a missed opportunity for visual exploration of its themes within the live-action segments. One of the mechanisms that the American carceral system uses to dehumanize prisoners is spatial division: bars, cells and partitions separate inmates from the outside world and strictly enforced rules dictate their interactions. While some scenes, like the administering of the lethal injection itself, felt carefully blocked and rooted in research, the prison scenes did not feel grounded in reality or material detail. It was simply never clear where Helen and Joseph were in the prison or what exactly was allowed or disallowed there, and this leached out much of the physical tension between the two.
The video material goes too far in the other direction. The opera opens with a video in which we see de Rocher’s crimes in explicit detail: we track through the green foliage and watch him and his brother sneak up on an unsuspecting couple who are making out in a car and rape the young woman at knifepoint before shooting the man and stabbing the young woman. The hand camera work was distracting, intrusive and often jarred the audience out of the scene; the prison yard chorus captured the conflict between the over-wrought video and underthought blocking: the projected video looks like something from a horror film, while the onstage movement felt stately. The execution itself was shot in extreme close-up. We could see a needle prick Joseph’s arm, and follow the poison as it traveled through the intravenous tubes. We had a steady shot on his face as he shivered, spasmed and died. I believe van Hove was aiming for realistic shock, capturing the horror of capital punishment. Instead, it felt gratuitous and worse, unintentionally comical. The actors in the pre-recorded footage were not quite up to the task, and the close-ups only revealed cracks in the performances.
Musically, it was also somewhat uneven, though Heggie’s score triumphed in the end. Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted with characteristic fervor, but the balance felt off between orchestra and voices. Singers shouted their way through when they could, but there were many more pitch and intonation problems than usual. All of this was exacerbated by the distracting accent work, and some ill-advised scooping in the more gospel-tinged moments.
Joyce DiDonato played Sister Helen as a naturally ebullient woman who finds herself at a loss—of words, of confidence, of steadfastness—when met with De Rocher’s defensive anger. Her normally flexible mezzo-soprano felt somewhat less pliant last night, with occasional dips into harshness. DiDonato’s warmth and charm made Sister Helen effortlessly likable, though, and her moments of quiet vulnerability were played and sung with sincerity and grace. Susan Graham, who originated the role of Helen Prejean when Dead Man Walking premiered, was pitiable and affecting as de Rocher’s mother. Mrs. She was in very fine voice, with a tentative sweetness to her sound that was underpinned by a strong engine and sense of line. As Joseph de Rocher, svelte-voiced baritone Ryan McKinny gave a powerful and moving performance, capturing a man who, in spite of his sins, wants to die well. McKinny was both the most intruded upon by van Hove’s cameras, and most able to act his way out of that particular corner. As Joseph’s rage gave way to fear and finally, to something like acceptance, McKinny imbued his character with dignity without smoothing over his contradictions.
As Sister Helen’s friend, Sister Rose, soprano Latonia Moore was an audience favorite, and a quartet of the parents of the murder victims made up of Rod Gilfry (especially striking and emotive) Krysty Swann, Wendy Bryn Harmer and Chauncey Packer served as the major opposing force to Sister Helen. The ensemble cast was rounded out by Chad Shelton, as prison priest Father Grenville, a sympathetic Raymond Aceto as Warden George Benton and a brief but memorable turn from Justin Austin, as a police officer.
Despite my issues with this production, Heggie and McNally’s piece has a lot of the right ingredients for sticking around: clear musical ideas, with a score that references popular styles without losing its own identity and strong vocal writing, a balanced and well-paced story and a timely set of ethical questions that deal deftly in ambivalence. Helen’s ambivalence towards Joseph is key to her heroism. She tries to act with compassion without losing sight of Joseph’s sins. She can reach Joseph in part because she steadfastly affirms his humanity in a system that seeks to strip it from him. Only through this act, the opera says, can a dead man live again before he dies. That’s an idea that’s built to last.
Tickets are available for Dead Man Walking through October 21.