Heggie Dead Man Walking
Jake Heggie’s first opera‚ to a libretto by Terence McNally‚ was given its world première at San Francisco in October 2000‚ when this live recording was made. Based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean‚ about her experiences as spiritual advisor to a convicted murderer on deathrow‚ it was a considerable popular success‚ the management putting on an extra performance.
Although the language used is rather that of soapoperas (‘I’d like to visit you and your wife’ – ‘My wife and I have separated’ – ‘I’m sorry’)‚ it is very well constructed as McNally is an experienced playwright (The Lisbon Traviata‚ Masterclass) and a devotee of l9thcentury Italian opera. The first act is cast very much in the traditional mould. The opening sequence shows the murder‚ then a short scene with chorus leads to the prima donna’s first aria and cabaletta. In this case she is singing to herself in the car as she drives for the first time to the prison‚ and is stopped for speeding. A pair of duets‚ first with the unsympathetic prison chaplain‚ then the confrontation with Joseph‚ the condemned man‚ leads to his first aria. The long Act 1 finale‚ set in and around the appeal court‚ includes a solo for the man’s mother‚ giving testimony before the panel‚ which in turn builds up into a sextet. The act ends with a large ensemble‚ a kind of dream for the nun‚ grappling with the confused issues.
The music is conventional‚ wellscored‚ extremely well written for the voice; the words come across clearly‚ and there are many good opportunities for the fine cast to show off their voices as well as acting abilities. In a way it’s a cross between the style of Broadway operas of the 1940s (Street Scene‚ Regina‚ The Medium)‚ with more than a nod in the direction of late Italian verismo‚ laced with some traditional American hymns.
The subject is hardly new – how many operas can you think of that deal with vengeance and redemption and end with the hero going to the scaffold? However‚ the setting in the 1980s does seem particularly incongruous given the romantic music‚ and when Sister Helen and Joseph start to sing about their shared admiration for Elvis – ‘The King’ – one would hope for a more immediate response from the composer‚ but by then it’s too late.
It’s easy to hear how effective all the cast must have been. Frederica Von Stade easily steals the honours in Act 1 as the Mother‚ with her long solo‚ but Susan Graham wins the day in the second act with her yearning aria ‘Who will walk with me?’ As Joseph‚ John Packard suggests the terrible fear and defiance of the character‚ one of the least attractive ‘heroes’. Among the large cast‚ Robert Orth as the grieving father of the murdered girl‚ and Theresa HammSmith as Sister Rose‚ are outstanding. The recorded sound is good‚ with stage effects and audience response in evidence‚ but not to a distracting level. Patrick Summers conducts with a complete command of the large forces.
Sister Helen Prejean herself provides an introduction to the opera‚ and I’m sure she is sincere when she writes that ‘Its theme is bigger and deeper than the question of the death penalty’‚ but that is the whole problem. The music and form do not provide a wide enough spectrum of emotion. ‘Good’ (Sister Helen)‚ ‘Bad’ (Joseph)‚ ‘Blindly loving’ (Mother) ‘Vindictive’ (the victims’ parents) are easily recognised characters. The scene of the execution is horrible – the music a dead slow march‚ of course.