The workings of the opera world are impossible to fathom. Here is Jake Heggie’s and Terrence McNally’s Dead Man Walking, first performed in San Francisco in 2000, subsequently played some three-hundred times all over the world, and receiving its long-overdue UK premiere, in a concert staging using the same leads and the same conductor from its recent full production in Madrid, as part of the Barbican Centre’s The Art of Change season.
Heggie and McNally hit the ground running with this accomplished first opera, and I hope Heggie’s later works including versions of Moby-Dick and It’s a Wonderful Life don’t have to wait nearly two decades before heading here. The back-story of Dead Man Walking is well-known from the 1995 film starring Susan Sarandon as Sister Helen Prejean, the Roman Catholic nun who became closely involved with prisoners on death row. Her 1993 book of the same name, subtitled “An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the US”, continues to get under the skin of American attitudes to the death penalty and gun laws, which, at the time of writing, are once again distressingly pertinent.
Heggie’s score gets to the core of Sister Helen’s relationship with Joseph (Joe) De Rocher (the character created from the death-row prisoners she encountered), convicted of murdering two teenagers out on a date and, against Sister Helen’s mantra of “The truth will set you free”, is stuck in denial over his guilt and need for forgiveness. Heggie’s music is tonal, melodic and direct. His idiom, in Dead Man Walking, references spirituals, blues, jazz, Broadway and any number of ‘art music’ influences from Bernstein to Britten – the opera’s climax, when Joe finally admits his guilt and need for forgiveness, is in the same area as the conclusion of the latter’s The Turn of the Screw. It isn’t an instantly discernible voice, but it presents solos and ensembles with a sure and spacious sense of drama.
The subject is potential minefield for politically correct posturing and religious squeamishness, but the opera’s success depends on an unequivocal candour without taking sides – and, as a result, scenes such as the Prologue (in which we witness the murders), and the big confrontations between Sister Helen and the teenagers’ parents, Joe and his mother, and, of course, Joe and Sister Helen, have a flow and impact sharpened by the music’s immediacy.
With her uncanny genius for getting inside a character, Joyce DiDonato presented Sister Jean’s diffidence, faith and unaffected humanity with devastating accuracy, and she sang Heggie’s voice-friendly music with conversational ease. Michael Mayes’s surly Joe blustered persuasively, but – and this is beautifully realised by Heggie – his seductive baritone was even more convincing as doubt and remorse slowly come to the surface. There were pitch-perfect performances from Measha Brueggergosman as the outgoing, bluesy Sister Rose and from Maria Zifchak as Joe’s unswervingly loving mother, and James Creswell and Michael Bracegirdle gave strong cameos as the tough but decent prison governor George Benton and the oleaginous prison chaplain Fr Grenville.
Leonard Foglia’s starkly lit concert staging was efficiently directed, while Mark Wigglesworth and the BBC Symphony Orchestra piled on the tension, tenderness and, in the conclusion to both Acts, overwhelming volume. The full house at the Barbican Hall collectively held its breath as the process of Joe’s eventual redemption worked itself out.