Executioners’ Song

A PRAYER BEFORE DYING: Sister Helen Prejan reads comforting words to death-row convict Joseph De Rocher.Photo: Carol Rosegg

It’s said that there are no second acts for new American operas, invariably shelved and forgotten after heavily hyped world premieres. Well, here’s one exception: Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, which has already chalked up an impressive history since its debut in San Francisco two years ago. Productions have materialized in a number of cities across the country, most recently at the City Opera, where the opening-night reception was just as ecstatic as that heard on the Erato recording of the premiere.

Not entirely a total fluke, Dead Man Walking does have precedents. Floyd’s Susannah, Menotti’s The Consul, Ward’s The Crucible, and Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe were all met with initial popular, if not critical, acclaim and went on to establish themselves, and for the same reasons that are likely to keep Heggie’s maiden operatic effort in the repertory: compelling characters in a powerful theatrical situation, along with an accessible score by a skillful composer who knows how to press all the right buttons. It’s not necessarily a formula that guarantees high art – and some pure souls are bound to feel manipulated – but it’s hard to argue with such success.

Based on the book and film of the same name, Dead Man Walking starts off with the advantage of a high-recognition subject with proven audience appeal. Effective operas do not write themselves, however, and this one features Terrence McNally’s craftily plotted libretto, which deals less with the politics of capital punishment than with personal issues of forgiveness, retribution, and redemption as Sister Helen Prejean prepares a death-row convict, Joseph De Rocher, for his execution. All the key players in this wrenching spiritual journey are made painfully real: the families of the two young victims, De Rocher’s tormented mother, and Sister Helen herself, as she wrestles with her own doubts and conflicting emotions. A lifelong opera fan, McNally understands very clearly how to write a workable text, especially when to step back and allow the music to take over and carry the moment.

Heggie seizes every opportunity, and he seldom disappoints. His music may not be stamped with any great originality or individuality, but it’s more than mere filler – there are virtually no dead spots in this fluidly constructed, surefooted, consistently lyrical score. Heggie’s strongest suit is his ability to find exactly the right musical contour for a line of text, penetrating to the heart of the emotional situation with expressive vocal writing that never fails to illuminate the characters. Everyone onstage has his or her distinct musical life, the dramatic pacing is impeccable, and the emotional climaxes arrive precisely on time. No wonder opera companies are lining up to stage the piece.

The City Opera production, shared with six other companies, mixes realistic documentary montage with subtle but jarring symbolic touches – there are more prisoners taking part in this drama than those locked behind real bars. Mainly, though, director Leonard Foglia and set designer Michael McGarty collaborate to tell the story swiftly, clearly, and powerfully. I can’t imagine a better cast: Joyce DiDonato, vocally eloquent and visually charismatic as the questing Sister Helen; John Packard, who finds the tragic vulnerability beneath De Rocher’s gritty exterior; and especially Sheryl Woods, whose portrait of Mrs. De Rocher is made unbearably poignant simply through sheer understatement and imaginative attention to tiny vocal and dramatic details. A huge supporting cast is involved, but no one is out of place in this smoothly integrated ensemble under John DeMain’s firm musical direction.

The three one-act operas that comprise Puccini’s Il Trittico have been performed separately almost since their world premiere at the Metropolitan in 1918, so the City Opera’s new production offers a rare opportunity to see them together as the composer intended. Not that these concise little dramas have much in common except a Puccinian preoccupation with love and death, subjects that pretty much apply to opera in general. Luckily, director James Robinson and set designer Allen Moyer resist fancy attempts to suggest links where none exist. Each work is presented more or less on its own terms: Il Tabarro, a steamy Grand Guignol tragedy of adultery and murder aboard a Seine riverboat; Suor Angelica, a tearjerker dealing with a nun who poisons herself after learning that her love child has died; and Gianni Schicchi, a black farce in which a grasping family forges the will of a rich relative barely cold in his deathbed.

That said, I don’t feel that what the production team has devised here is always in the triptych’s best theatrical interests. Setting Suor Angelica in a Catholic children’s hospital seems positively perverse. All of the atmospheric touches that Puccini lavished on a score so delicately descriptive of convent life – its everyday routines, the constant presence of nature, the almost mystical dimming of daylight as night approaches – are canceled out by this glaring, antiseptic set. The updating of Gianni Schicchi from Dante’s Florence to the present day is less damaging, but, as so often happens with this opera, coarse slapstick takes the place of genuine humor. The barren sets for Il Tabarro at least suggest the right menacing milieu, but the overall effect is more drab than sinister.

Still, the production concepts are scarcely so rigid that individual performers can’t assert themselves. Maria Kanyova is particularly affecting as Angelica: tender, vulnerable, and tragically intense. Mark Delavan is the other star of the evening. His hulking presence and burly baritone suit the brooding barge owner Michele to perfection, while his Gianni Schicchi has such sly comic potential that one regrets all the more the cheap shots going on around him. There are nearly 40 singing parts to cast, but the City Opera has plenty of attractive, fresh young voices on hand, and conductor George Manahan guides them with brisk efficiency. What this Trittico mostly lacks is stylistic consistency and a fierce involvement with the fevered emotions that drive all three dramas – qualities that invariably seem to be missing in Puccini performance these days.

Dead Man Walking
By Jake Heggie. Directed by Leonard Foglia at City Opera.
Il Trittico
By Puccini. Directed by James Robinson at City Opera.

Executioners’ Song