Dead Man Walking

Local Arts Reviews

Dead Man Walking: Feeling Every Step of the Long, Stony Way

Bass Concert Hall, through Jan. 18

Running Time: 2 hrs, 50 min

Two naked bodies entwined under a starlit sky. Music from a car radio scents the air with romance. Then this scene of peace and affection dissolves into violation and violence. Two men enter, one with a knife, one with a gun. They seize the young lovers. A gunshot to the back of a head. A rape, a scream, a knife plunging down again and again.

This is where we begin in the extraordinary new opera Dead Man Walking, and the scene is presented with such raw force, is so chilling and repulsive, that it leaves no room to feel sympathy for Joe De Rocher, the man wielding the knife. Witnessing it, you can't imagine feeling anything but revulsion for the perpetrator of such cruelty. And yet by the time this man faces his own death by execution, a nun will say she loves him, and we will understand her feelings. It is a measure of this work's power, and that of Austin Lyric Opera's production, that it takes us from a place of horror and abhorrence to one of comprehension and compassion, a place where we may see the humanity of a murderer. The opera provides a journey of discovery -- of self, of truth and its liberating power, of love in a barren heart -- where we feel each step taken on its long and stony way.

The opera, adapted from the nonfiction book by Sister Helen Prejean, manages this through a succession of journeys: Sister Helen's journey to become a bride of Christ; her long drive from Hope House to Angola Penitentiary to meet De Rocher; her harrowing walk past cells filled with prisoners mocking her, cursing her, beseeching her for help; De Rocher's journey from denial to truth; and his march to the chamber where he will be executed by lethal injection. As one smaller journey is completed, it moves us along in the larger journey, thereby taking us across such an impossible distance.

Each journey is charted with care by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Terrence McNally. McNally's spare text captures the plain-speaking ways of its modern American characters, and while it may not have the ring of poetry, it has the power of it: words artfully chosen for their weight, so that every one has impact. As the parents of the murdered teens vent their grief at Sister Helen, their song shifts from "You don't know what it is to bear a child" to "You don't know what it is to bury your child" -- a simple alteration, yet it lands with a hammer blow. The music is no less tightly composed. Beneath the opening scene, it roils with menace, like the clouds of a thunderhead ready to break. When the grief-stricken parents sing, it sobs in short bursts of strings. Masterfully evoking familiar music -- gospel hymns, scores by Copland and Bernstein, even "Jailhouse Rock" -- Heggie composes a recognizably American landscape.

The artists in ALO's staging, under the direction of Christopher Harlan-Doerr, follow the paths set out by McNally and Heggie with painstaking precision. John Packard's De Rocher meets Sister Helen reeking of arrogance and menace, all swagger and snarl. But his belligerence melts into fear and a hunger for comfort. Margaret Lattimore reveals Sister Helen's uncertainty about counseling De Rocher, and yet in her earnest expression we see the face of a woman who cannot turn from a plea for help, no matter the source or cost. She moves resolutely from concern for De Rocher's mother (Kathryn Day's voice soars even as her frame is racked with torment and guilt) to shame under the glare of the victims' parents (a moving foursome, led by Kelly Anderson, his deep bass-baritone seething with bitterness and frustration over the justice he cannot find) to compassion for De Rocher. Hers is truly the face of love that she says she wants him to see as he passes from this world.

Opera can inform who we are and how we live today, as Dead Man Walking shows. As it opened here, Illinois' governor made a controversial decision to grant clemency to the state's 167 death-row inmates. The opera does not tell us what to think about capital punishment. Rather, it artfully explores lives affected by a sentence of death. It brings to us a nun in doubt, a killer in fear, parents in anguish over children who are lost to them. It reminds us that we are all human, and comprehending that -- not just in our heads but in the depths of our hearts -- is essential if we are ever to come to grips with this issue as a society.

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Dead Man Walking, Sister Helen Prejean, Jake Heggie, Terrence McNally, Austin Lyric Opera, Christopher Harlan-Doerr, John Packard, Margaret Lattimore, Kathryn Day, Kelly Anderson

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