Washington National Opera’s ‘Dead Man Walking’

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It’s been almost 17 years since “Dead Man Walking,” the modern American opera with music by Jake Heggie and a libretto by acclaimed playwright Terrence McNally, made its debut at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco.

The premiere of the opera (based on a book by Sister Helen Prejean and preceded by a successful Hollywood film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn) was a star-studded event, hailed as something of a leap forward in the creation of contemporary operas. The story of an impassioned Louisiana nun who becomes the spiritual advisor of a man convicted of the murder of a teenaged couple has had some 40 productions.

Oddly enough, “Dead Man Walking” has never been staged by Washington National Opera, but WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello has taken care of that serious omission with a production that made its entrance Feb. 25 at the Kennedy Center Opera House. It runs through March 11.

It’s easy enough to say that it was worth the wait (it was, it was), but more surprising is the fact that, in spite of the considerable passage of time since its debut, “Dead Man Walking” remains a work of art — of musical art as well as of dramatic art — that seems even now fresh as discovery itself. There is nothing stale about the music that the gifted Heggie has made, mixing the stylistically classical with naturally echoing forms. McNally’s libretto is powerful, sometimes formal and often electrically colloquial.

Its subjects — appalling violence and murder, crime and punishment, the death penalty, faith and forgiveness — are hardly timebound; they’re as contemporary as breaking news, political debates or a Sunday sermon at the church of your choice. But it would be a mistake to submit to the temptation to merely talk about the death penalty or to focus on the political content that percolates in the opera. It is a full-bodied exploration of the human heart and emotions in a fully imagined scenario and landscape of music and narrative.

Time does arch movingly and with theatrical irony through the production in terms of its participants. Soprano Susan Graham embodies with searing, touching singing and acting the wrecked and tremulous soul of Mrs. De Rocher, the struggling mother of Joseph De Rocher, the convicted killer on a march toward death, accompanied by the valiantly and doggedly compassionate Sister Helen Prejean. Back in 2000, Graham had the role of Prejean, while the renowned mezzo Frederica von Stade took on the role of Mrs. De Rocher.

The stars in this production, singularly and more broadly, are numerous. Zambello’s direction is both acutely geared to the music and in service of the narrative force of the story. Intelligent and finely tuned, it serves as a master barometer to the opera’s emotional content. The pace never lingers too long, let alone wallows; it moves swiftly to soaring scenes of piercing musical introspection and solos and on to the big picture — thanks to the fluid and stark sets of Allen Moyer and the push of the music as propelled by conductor Michael Christie.

Having encountered Heggie’s work in WNO’s quite unforgettable production of his “Moby Dick,” you appreciate the diversity of his musical focus. In “Moby Dick,” Heggie managed somehow to hear not only the rhythms of seafaring life, but the emerging and recurring poetic sounds of 19th-century American prose and poetics.

In “Dead Man Walking,” the characters, alone or with others, engage in what you can only call operatic conversations, which contain emotional pleading and argument between heart and head, doubt and surety, pain and its alleviation. At turns, you hear gospel, the authoritative sounds of crowds and a subtle jazzy, bluesy undertone.

When we first meet Prejean in New Orleans working with young people, we hear the sounds of joyful singing with the spiritual “He Will Gather Us Around,” which becomes a kind of theme song throughout for the begetting of calm, a musical salve for forgiveness.

The nun has decided to take on the spiritual care of Joseph De Rocher, convicted of killing two teens, an angry, bristling, frustrated man who has never admitted to the murders. She believes in salvation, forgiveness and the worth of every human being, and sets out on her trip to the Louisiana prison at Angola to live her convictions. Their meetings are a kind of courtship toward trust, an often treacherous, tense and intense dance that has more than its share of surprising moments.

Mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey brings a sharp emotionalism and faith into her singing; she navigates her solos like a surfer when the music threatens to become merely vocalized talk, playing the role with a sprite’s energy in both her voice and her body. Her voice always seeming to see a note ahead, filling in the spots. Baritone Michael Mayes performs something of a miracle. Prodded by his character’s plight and the interplay with Lindsey, Mayes makes De Rocher not necessarily likeable, but forgivable, with his strong, insistent voice and his gymnastic physical self-torture.

There are horrible and painful moments — the opening murder of the young couple, the mother’s unwillingness to face her son’s attempt at confession, the pent-up threat of the convict, Prejean keeping to her willingness to allow De Rocher to see “the face of love.” But there are other moments — a wry encounter with a patrolman, Prejean and her best friend singing together and the warm, funny discovery that the nun and the convict are huge Elvis fans. “Like Elvis?” he sings. “I wanted to be him.”

These are not just tempering moments, they are the life vest we hope to catch in our darker hours.

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