A Stark and Powerful Production – Dead Man Walking

Houston, TX – Life, death, truth, and love are common themes in opera.  Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, currently staged by Houston Grand Opera, presents these themes starkly and powerfully.  HGO’s production has received a substantial amount of local attention due to the fact that it celebrates the opera’s tenth anniversary, it marks renowned mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade’s farewell to the stage, and that it deals with the death penalty in a state that has executed more inmates than any other.  Yet, one of the most striking things about Dead Man Walking is that the opera itself is not explicitly for or against capital punishment.  The character of Sister Helen Prejean states that she does not believe in capital punishment and convicted murderer Joseph De Rocher is certainly portrayed sympathetically by Philip Cutlip, but the production leaves no question as to De Rocher’s guilt or the brutality of his crime.  The audience member is allowed to decide whether justice was served through the filter of their own beliefs.  In that way, they join Sister Helen on her journey as she attempts to forgive De Rocher in the face of his atrocities, although the destination may not be the same.

Based on the novel of the same name by Sister Helen Prejean, Dead Man Walking follows the spiritual journey of Sister Helen as she meets Joseph De Rocher and serves as his spiritual advisor in the last weeks of his life.  Sister Helen faces bitterness and anger from the family of De Rocher’s victims and must also overcome her own self doubts about the depth of her strength and compassion.  The opera also tracks De Rocher’s journey as Sister Helen gets him to open up and admit responsibility for his crimes, giving him the strength to admit his shame and ask forgiveness of his victim’s families.

Directed by Leonard Foglia, this production strives for reality throughout.  Very little is left to the imagination, including a disturbingly explicit staging of the crime committed by De Rocher and his brother, as well as an unsettlingly accurate depiction of De Rocher’s execution by lethal injection.  Calling these scenes disturbing and unsettling is not meant as criticism.  Seeing these horrors firsthand allows the audience to truly journey along with the main characters, because they are as fully informed as they are.  As with all of HGO’s productions, the visuals are lush and striking.  The set makes excellent work of a heavy rake and layered chain link fences to create the industrial, claustrophobic feel of a high security prison.  Joyce DiDonato and Philip Cutlip are stunning as Sister Helen and De Rocher.  Both sing beautifully, but Ms. DiDonato deserves special praise considering her character comes onstage approximately five minutes into the production and is only offstage for about a minute for the remainder of the one hour and twenty minute first act.  She and Mr. Cutlip also convincingly portray the growth of the fragile relationship between Sister Helen and De Rocher, conveying a true sense of intimacy between two characters who spend most of their time together separated by glass.  A true standout in a small role was Measha Brueggergosman, making her HGO debut as Sister Rose.  Her rich, flexible soprano was a delight every time she was onstage, and she blended nicely with DiDonato in their brief duet.  In a role created for her, by Heggie and librettist Terrance McNally, Frederica von Stade humanizes De Rocher through her compelling portrayal of Joseph’s shocked and grieving mother.

In fact, Mrs. De Rocher sums up the opera’s entire commentary on the death penalty when she turns to the parents of her son’s victims and asks, “haven’t we all suffered enough?”  The opera never answers that question definitively, but rather allows the audience and each character to find their own answer for themselves.  The production, though at times bleak and unsettling, is ultimately moving and even uplifting.  It is not to be missed.

Houston Grand Opera continues their production of Dead Man Walking on February 2, 4, and 6. More information »

Photo Credit: Felix Sanchez

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