Again, my profuse apologies for taking a week to get this out. I was in San Antonio all week attending the Culinary Institute of America and when I returned work called. This opera opened a week ago and will close in several days, but two performances still remain and while Anne Midgette slashed it to high heaven there have been raves printed elsewhere in the local press proving overwhelmingly that Washington National Opera's new production of DEAD MAN WALKING is indeed most worthy!
Sister Helen Prejean: Kate Lindsey
Joseph De Rocher: Michael Mayes
Mrs. De Rocher: Susan Graham
Sister Rose: Jacqueline Echols
Warden George Benton: Timothy J. Bruno
Father Grenville: Clay Hilley
Owen Hart: Wayne Tigges
Kitty Hart: Kerriann Otaño
Howard Boucher: Robert Baker
Jade Boucher: Daryl Freedman
Motorcycle Cop/Prison Guard 1: Michael Adams
Prison Guard 2: Andrew Bogard
Older Brother: Matthew Hill
Younger Brother: Simon Diesenhaus
Teenage Girl: Rebecca Brinkley
Teenage Boy: Dylan Jackson
Anthony De Rocher/Paralegal: Joe Isenberg
Director: Francesca Zambello
Conductor: Michael Christie
Assistant Director: E. Loren Meeker
Set Designer: Allen Moyer
Costume Designer: Jessica Jahn
Lighting Designer: Christopher Akerlind
Projections: Greg Emetaz
Sound Design: Roger Gans
Sound Consultation: Acme Sound Partners
Hair and Makeup Designer: Anne Ford-Coates for Elsen Associates
Fight Master: Joe Isenberg
Cover Conductor: Michael Sakir
Assistant Conductor: Michael Baitzer
Assistant Conductor and Diction Coach: Thomas Bagwell
Chorus Master: Steven Gathman
Children's Chorus Master: William Breytspraak
Projected English Titles: Colin Ure
Stage Manager: Lynn Krynicki
There is a stage curtain/scrim which has dark ominous clouds across the front at the start which undulate at the bottom. The scrim remains for the opening rape/murder scene which is done very tastefully with a vintage car and radio. Two actors are in their underwear, so blunt nudity is not an issue here. The intense beating is apparent, but done on the other side of the car so we only see Joseph holding the girl down; again, I think we were all grateful not to have to deal with it "in our face" as this is a scene we have indeed seen before many times (especially having seen the opera over 4 times so far!).
Sister Helen enters reading a letter as the scene is cleared away and the scrim rises as the nuns gather with the children to sing "He will gather us around..."
The unit set has a catwalk across the top at the rear and is quite barren save for items that are rolled on and off such as the piano for this scene. Piles of plastic stacking chairs are off to each side of the stage and are later not only used for the scenes but as each character becomes a part of the story they take a chair and often stay to one side of the stage seated as if they are still involved.
For "The Journey," Sister Helen's scena going to the prison we get the first feeling for how well Ms. Lindsey fits this role. She is demure, yet stubborn and really does not know what she is getting herself into. As the scene climaxes to her singing, "I'm never making this drive again!" we know how wrong she is. Her sustained "Amen" ending the scena was divine.
The prison scene opens with guards at the bottom and the prisoners across the top of the walk as well as very clever use of the rear black and white panel curtains.
The Father is with deRocher who still insists he is innocent as the warden, brilliantly portrayed by Mr. Bruno, enters saying that Sister Helen has arrived. The chant "woman on the tier" is repeated as the convicts taunt her and the warden winds his way through metal stairs and the convicts with Sister Helen being visually molested by the men. It is quite a wonderful scene giving us a good feel for the prisoners. Mr. Mayes is brought in with hand and ankle shackles and these are the only chains we actually see as Ms. Zambello decided to eliminate bars and walls for this wonderful production simply because we already know where we are, this is a story about the characters and as she and the real Sister Helen keep reminding us, "about redemption." The scene ends with Sister Helen singing, "everything is gonna be alright," but it really isn't. So many contradictions.
The music is jazzy, jilty and more which is a true gift in this first opera by Mr Heggie. I really can't understand how a critic can condemn this music (now 16+ years old) which has been seen in over 50 different productions worldwide; somebody must like it!
Ms. Graham is coming back to the work for the first time since the premiere production (which we saw in San Francisco) but now as the mother of Joseph DeRocher and she hits the role right on the nail, even down to the horrible perm wig. Just as good is Wayne Tigges as the father of the murdered girl and his interaction with both Mrs. DeRocher and Sister Helen. The scene moves on to the Pardon Board hearing where all five parents confront Sister Helen and Mrs. deRocher in "You don't know," which is such a magnificent yet haunting ensemble. The three Young Artists playing the other parents are simply superb.
The scene changes to a waiting room of sorts with several chairs and a Coke machine. Mr. Mayes sings, "I believe in the here and now" as Sister Helen confronts him and tells him to admit his guilt as forgiveness is truth. The Warden interrupts and the scene changes to a crowd of convicts at the bottom and the children and nuns at the top. Mr. Mayes has been denied his pardon and blurts "HELP ME!" as he shakes with a palsy that is so believable but also makes us very uncomfortable. The music builds and builds to a climax, nay, a cacophony where the magnificent piercing tenor of Mr. Hilley's priest confronts Helen with "You're way over your head Sister!"
It was most interesting to talk to many people during the intermission fro many different opinions of those who did not even know the story, let alone the opera. There was a lot of inner delving going on, and the evening was not even over.
Act II starts with horns and percussion as Joseph is doing pushups in his cell (just a cot and chair) as the two guards (amazingly portrayed by Young Artists Messrs. Adams and Bogard) look on. Ultimately a bed appears to the right and Sister Helen sleeps as Joseph sings, "if y'all think killing is so bad, look at what yer doing" as he tries to transfer the blame of murder to his executioners' consciences.
The pushups are at a maximum intensity now as Joseph is almost mad and we see the murdered teen couple at the rear.
There is a duet for Helen & Joseph which involves Elvis rock and Joseph seems to lower his guard and sings, "Have you let me in?" to which Helen answers " Oh yes, so much more than I ever imagined."
The scene changes and Joseph is with his mother and two brothers for a farewell as Mrs. DeRocher asks Helen to take a photo (with an old instamatic) and as the flash goes the scene goes to a sepia frozen photo with Joseph attempting to hide his shackles. He ultimately steps out and the scene continues with Helen singing, :who will walk with me...We will walk together by and by."
For me this was the huge difference in all the Helens I have seen before as Ms. Lindsey was very frail in her portrayal and the mezzos heretofore were less so, indeed harder. Having met Sister Helen, I know she is one hard cookie, but she has a very soft side to her and I really think this was a truly special and appropriate touch to this production that made it even more moving.
Helen is now with the parents of the teens and Mr. Hart comes to her admitting, "I've said some harsh things..." which leads to a duet ending with the two of them kind of saying they will meet again.
Mr. Mayes appears at the rear in his underwear with the convicts above as the guards taunt him.
Helen meets him and says she went to the place of the murder and he eventually admits his guilt to her. He goes into a fetal position curled up on the floor as the crowd gathers to watch his execution. Helen reassures him "God is here right now." The Father asks him if he would like to recite the Lord's Prayer to which Joseph says "no thanks." The Father cynically says that someone should as the Warden booms in a chilling bass voice, "Let's go! DEAD MAN WALKING!" It literary had me squirming in my seat as I knew what was to come.
Once again Mr. Hilley's tenor rang over the entire crowd singing, "Our Father..." and the people begin to rise from their chairs. Joseph is held by the guards as he begins to twitch again almost epileptically when "deliver us" is sung by the Father.
A table moves forward from the rear with a medical technician and Joseph passes out is he is being led to his death. He is then strapped to the table which is not a true crucifix (as I have seen before) but has the arms bound on a cross with the top of the "t'" sloping down, as tubes and wires are attached to him.
The table is moved up vertically and he is asked if he has any last words as he asks forgiveness of the parents and is laid back down.
As the lights dim around he is still lit at the center as Sister Helen sings "He will gather us around" acapella until only Joseph's head is lit.
Frankly, I do not understand how anyone can not appreciate this glorious music to start. I surely can understand how the subject matter would make a person uncomfortable, but then isn't there murder in most operas! Simply said, Dead man Walking is indeed one of the most successful operas of our time and truly deserves its place in the pantheon of contemporary great works. Top that off with this masterful production and impressive cast and you have a hit. There is no question that Mr. Mayes(disclaimer--he is a friend and client) is the definitive Joseph DeRocher we have today.
ALAN SAVADA of Washington, DC
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