HEGGIE Dead Man Walking
The next logical step for Jake Heggie’s hit opera Dead Man Walking would seem to be a DVD. In its early productions the opera was a true stage animal, distinguished more for its dramatisation than the actual music that tells its gritty story of a nun counselling a convicted killer on death row in Louisiana’s Angola State Prison. Some 12 years later, the opera has a second sound-only recording with a largely different cast, but is dramatically transformed orchestrally by conductor Patrick Summers (who also led the 2000 recording, made shortly after the San Francisco premiere). If the opera seemed good before, it’s rather better now.
Based on a memoir by the real-life Sister Helen Prejean that was made into a hit film of the same title, Dead Man Walking initially felt like a return to mid-20th-century Gian Carlo Menotti with 21st-century theatrical steroids. Heggie drew from a wide range of familiar operatic tactics (as in Werther, innocent children’s songs in Act 1 return amid tragedy in the final scene) but with a conviction that suggests that if he hadn’t invented them (and his relatively conservative harmonic language), he could have. The different elements of opera – from mere walking-around music to heartfelt soliloquies – are all well in hand, though the intensity of the Act 2 revelations is, no doubt, what brought the opera to wide popularity. In the new recording, the score feels less like a ‘numbers’ opera and more all of a piece, more consistently solid than before, thanks to better pacing. The opera now evokes its own distinctive musical world, even if it pales in comparison with Heggie’s recent (and masterfully atmospheric) Moby-Dick.
Many elements of the new recording are simply different. Some characters have heavier Louisiana accents than before, though Frederica von Stade, who plays the killer’s mother and is the main holdover from the original recording, has less accent – and is just as touching in one of her best but least characteristic roles. The central role of Sister Helen has a considerable change of temperament. In the first recording, Susan Graham goes deep into the character’s psyche with precisely wrought vocal colour, in what stands among her best recorded performances. Any questions about the nature of her faith are answered by the quiet, inward confidence when she sings ‘Hail Mary’ during the nun’s dark, exhausted hour in Act 2. In the same moment, Joyce DiDonato, the new Sister Helen, is more an inflection-based singer who comes to the vocal lines almost as heightened speech, and handles that moment with more worldly desperation – with equal but different dramatic effect. Graham’s characterisation was that of someone in over her head. The more confrontational, can-do DiDonato leaves no question that she’ll get a confession out of the killer. DiDonato also makes the nun and the murderer soul mates, each loving the other in the spirit of operatic tenor and soprano. Interesting!
As the killer, Philip Cutlip is prickly and vocally imposing in his early scenes. But later on he becomes rhetorically understated in ways that make his ultimate confession even more devastating than that of the excellent, more dramatically aggressive John Packard in the original. Cutlip’s apology to the family of the deceased even comes out in a scared-little-boy voice. It’s here that you realise why the luxury casting in the secondary roles isn’t as thrilling on disc as it might have been on stage in Houston. The duet between DiDonato and Measha Brueggergosman (as her confidante Sister Rose) becomes too operatic for the opera’s good. Same thing in the ensemble scene with the family of the deceased, featuring Susanne Mentzer: it’s operatic mush in ways that obscure what makes this piece distinctively American – a word-based dramaturgy that draws from American folksong, blues and Broadway, blended so instinctually and effortlessly that one barely notices until its balance is upset.