Dead Man Walking makes its Minnesota Opera debutReview
Opening night of the five-show run of Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking was full of high intensity by the cast and creative team at Minnesota Opera. Following the company’s precedence of presenting new works, this was a regional premiere. I took advantage of the late seating option to miss the graphic murder scene, but watched some from the monitors (it did not seem too explicit).
The singing was at a high caliber. Most notably, Catherine Martin (Sister Helen Prejean) had a strong presence that anchored the show, and Karen Slack (Sister Rose) had glorious tones that glided over the ensemble.
Joseph de Roche was portrayed by Seth Carico. With an obviously draining part, this performer’s stamina was showcased. His impressive vocal qualities were obvious from the beginning - but it was shocking that he did at least twenty push ups while singing and still had control.
The quartet of the victims’ parents was led by Andrew Wilkowske, who gave a bitter, vitriolic performance. His characterisation was striking, and his first appearance - as he explodes in the plead hearing and describes his daughters death in detail - was effective. The inmate chorus was rightly disturbing in their harassment of Sister Helen. The female chorus were exuberant nuns and teachers, with many children playing their pupils. The children’s chorus made another appearance in the cacophony first act finale.
The orchestra was lead by Michael Christie, who held a steady base under singers. There were inconsistent Southern accents from the cast, but the most convincing accent came from prison chaplain, Father Grenville, sung by Dennis Petersen.
The production team continued their use of projections (MO’s season opener, Don Pasquale, was chock full of them), designed by Erhard Rom. Over the the two-plus hours, they became very overdone and distracting; the shadow bar projections got campy after the first thirty seconds.
Though it was impactful to see the headlines from newspapers about the crime and appeals, there was overuse. Instead, this precious stage space could have been used to fill out some of the plot holes (for example, projections of the correspondence between Sister Helen and Joseph).
There were ominous prison guards lurking above the action throughout the whole opera, and a confusing element of the set was the huge American flag, which hung above center stage. What was the message? That Americans are the only ones who deal with capital punishment? Director Joel Ivany wrote in his program notes, “Despite being an American subject, its themes…are universal.” So, why the ominous stars and stripes? Does that not take away from the universality of the piece and message?
Most of the costumes, designed by Sheila White, were appropriate (though Sister Helen ended the opera in a fitted pantsuit, which seems pretty daring for a nun in the 1980’s, but what do I know?), except for Mrs. de Rocher sung by Emily Pulley. She was dressed fairly nicely, making her pleas of “we were poor”, and her not being able to pronounce “dyslexia” not believable. Similarly, her characterization was too coquettish for a mother fighting for her son’s life. The raw sadness and was there and came through in her singing, but there needed to be a little bit more anger there to reflect how hard her life has been. The curtain came down on the whole cast gathered around the death chamber, as Helen sings her leitmotif “He will gather us around”. I was struck by the metaphor of that action. Did the director intentionally make Joseph a Christ figure?
Overall, this was a fine performance of the work with a real sense of ensemble among the cast. However, I would suggest that audience members do their research about the real-life characters and situations before attending, because there is not much background given. It is a great opportunity for residents of the Twin Cities to get to see an opera that, in just eighteen short years, has become an international hit.
Looking forward to Rigoletto in March!