Welsh National Opera – Dead Man Walking
Wales Millennium Centre
Friday 7th June 2019
WNO’s Freedom season has officially begun, with extensive exhibitions, talks and opera. Lovers of contemporary opera can rejoice as the entire season is made up of contemporary work and some forgotten pieces from the last century, with an additional smattering of Beethoven for good measure. WNO are no strangers to newly written pieces; the likes of In Parenthesis and Figaro Gets A Divorce moved and delighted audiences for the past few years. Their commitment to new work continues here with the UK premiere of Dead Man Walking.
Those familiar with the story might recall the true source material from Sister Helen Prejean and her time spent with death row prisoners, before the inevitable. Most will recognise this material from the Tim Robbins film, with an Oscar winning turn from Susan Sarandon as Sister Helen. Faith and executions are typical fare in operas over the centuries, you only need to recall The Dialogue of the Carmelites, Tosca and La forza del destino to name a few which dabbled in them. The real pulling force of this opera is Sister Helen’s conviction in helping Joseph De Rocher, who is going to be executed, and the perception of evil formulated for him by others, as the perpetrator. This is an opera which does not shy away from the crimes committed; the opening is a harsh and jolting episode, with plenty of trigger warnings from the company in attempts to justify its place in the piece.
This being the first opera of American composer Jake Heggie, for a first attempt it is impressive. Though the work is almost twenty years old, it seems to have made a mark with nearly seventy productions being made since then. The music feels in keeping with the great American opera, and touches of John Adams are easy comparisons. Sweetly perfumed Americana is also heard throughout, harking back to the likes of Aaron Copland, in interesting ways honouring the rich musical heritage of Gospel, blues, jazz and spirituals. The libretto of Terrance McNally works well with this score, filled with American slang and phrases you might expect from Louisiana. There are grateful moments of humour as well, calibrating the force of the hefty drama exploding upon the stage.
It’s a simple set, with all the impassioned musicians also on stage. Misty Buckley’s work might be mistaken for a moment for a large ship with a higher deck, though it quickly becomes clear as a cell block design, with male singers above and female singers below. The orchestra pit here is cleverly made into a holding cell for Joseph, to which he is frequently dragged in and out. Direction by Martin Constantine has all the elements of a good production, the on edge moments played out well. Good example being the end of act one: it remained very strong when the entire orchestra/singers all blast in Sister Helen’s head as she buys a Coke from a vending machine, remedying the announcement of Joseph’s lethal injection. Though opera deaths are notoriously long, Joseph’s has the whole second act to build up to his demise. Most in the story welcome his end, yet the biggest question I had about this true story is why did Sister Helen not comfort the parents of those whom Joseph and his brother sexually assaulted and murdered? That remains the one big odd bump in the story, even if our holy protagonist clearly denies the death penalty for anyone. The parents even confront her with this very observation.
Dead Man Walking requires two mighty leads and they did not disappoint. Morgan Smith is brash and intimidating as Joseph, the personification a of a grey area of a role. You should hate him, yet can’t help but feel for him due to his lack of control on the night of the attack (drink and drugs were involved). Smith isn’t afraid to boom at Sister Helen, with stirring yells for his life, in moments of heightened drama. Their love of Elvis feels like one charmed moment of friendship before the sadness arrives. Sister Helen is played by Lucia Cervoni, in a demanding role, on stage for most of the show. I feel she really absorbed the role and truly understood the dense contradictions within. She conveys the faith of the role well with a soaring voice, made special at the very end of the piece. A gospel song sung by children is heard throughout the opera, but to hear Cervoni sing this a-cappella in a powerful reprisal ends the show with a shudder down the spine.
Mrs Patrick De Rocher is the mother dealing with the grief in about to be losing her son, here played with heartfelt consideration by Anne Mason, in a stirring supporting role. Huge effort was given from the mass of singers, both students and professionals making up prisoners and nuns with those super forceful moments, complementing the events with gusto.
Powerful & tense theatre, unashamedly American.
Dead Man Walking along with performances of The Consul, The Prisoner/Fidelio Act II and Brundibár makes up the WNO Freedom season in Cardiff.
Photo Credit: Johan Persson