An opera that leaves us with questions, and a production that effectively answers them.
Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, which premiered in 2000 at the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, is based on Sister Helen Prejean’s eponymous book that also inspired Tim Robbins’ 1995 film. The book recalls her encounters with two inmates in Louisiana State Penitentiary who faced the death penalty in the 1980s. In the opera the single prisoner Joseph De Rocher becomes a hybrid of both of these real people, while the events depicted draw on Sister Helen’s actual experiences.
When this production by the Guildhall School of Music & Drama was first planned no one could have known how much the issue of the death penalty would be in the news. This is because the Conservative Party’s new deputy chairman Lee Anderson has just proclaimed that he would back the return of capital punishment. Sister Helen in both the opera and real life (she is now 85) is vehemently opposed to it, believing that a society that teaches its citizens that the way to deal with difficult problems is to kill them cannot then expect its people to behave otherwise.
The opera sees her establishing a relationship with Joseph, who has been found guilty of assaulting and murdering two teenagers. She hopes his death sentence can be quashed, and takes the steps she can to try to secure this, including telling his mother what to say at the Pardon Board. She fails in her aim, but the more she is perceived as fighting his corner the more the victims’ families see her as the enemy. This hurts her because she does feel their pain, but any attempts she makes to comfort them incite their wrath as they accuse her of being disrespectful and wanting it both ways.
Heggie’s score is very strong at generating atmosphere. For example, when Sister Helen first meets Joseph in his cell he finally opens up to her and almost falls into a dreamlike state as he describes what to him makes life worthwhile. Then the guard announces there are five minutes left, which breaks the spell and sees Joseph become frantic once more at thoughts of his fate, and Heggie’s music captures the associated change in mood extremely well. There are times when sounds coming across a radio are conveyed, while the children who Sister Helen works with sing hymns that, although not ironic in themselves, can create irony because of when they are sung. This leads to a powerful moment towards the end of Act I when Joseph is confronted with the youths singing while Sister Helen is surrounded by, it would seem, all of the forces in the system that act against her.
The story as it is told in the opera, which has a libretto by Terrence McNally, is not entirely unproblematic. Some of the difficulties may arise from the fact that it is based on real events, meaning that in an attempt to represent these there is less opportunity to exploit the normal range of devices that can be used to create a coherent and compelling story. It does not require someone to favour the death penalty to suggest that if one is going to write a piece exposing its injustices, Joseph’s is not the best case to use. This is because he is certainly guilty, whereas a more ambiguous case would have better highlighted the argument that there is always the risk of killing an innocent person. Other arguments, such as the protracted timescales and uncertainty that capital punishment can generate, and the actual cruelty involved in lethally injecting someone, still stand. However, Joseph’s crime is so heinous that one might find some people continuing to argue that he deserved everything he got, which again does not make it the most persuasive tool.
“Heggie’s score is very strong at generating atmosphere”
Throughout the opera Joseph protests his innocence arguing that his brother committed the murders but had a better lawyer, and Sister Helen desperately tries to get him to confess to what he did believing in the healing power of honesty. He finally does so at the end, but until then his mother believes his proclamations of innocence and it is hard to know why she is so ready to accept them. While a parent may wish to see the best in their son out of love for him, in this instance accepting Joseph’s innocence means acknowledging another son’s total guilt, and it is hard to imagine her doing something so painful in its own right without further thought.
If a few such flaws can be identified, Martin Lloyd-Evans’ production goes a long way to minimising them in our minds by ensuring that we are constantly engaged with the drama. Anna Reid’s designs see pylons frequently drop from the ceiling, which can suggest a variety of things such as grid like communications that hint at the overall repression of the system. They also feature as trees in the opening Louisiana bayou scene where the murder takes place, with their manmade feel already hinting at the way in which this natural spot is about to be corrupted. Walls of tiles appear that convey the sterile atmosphere of the penitentiary, with prisoners frequently moving past them in their barred cells that slide on and off the stage. Sister Helen’s first journey to the Louisiana State Penitentiary is especially effective. As she sits in half a car that faces us, the tiled wall at the back parts just enough to reveal the road behind so that we gain a keen sense of the time and heat involved in this lengthy journey.
The orchestra, conducted by Dominic Wheeler, is highly effective while the cast is equally excellent. As Sister Helen, Alexandra Meier reveals a nuanced mezzo-soprano as she presents a character whose care and concern feel so realistic that they only occasionally seem to verge on the fanatical. Michael Lafferty-Smith reveals an expansive, and quite free and easy feeling, baritone that is very effective at making Joseph feel human in spite of the crimes he has committed. Alaric Green also displays an excellent baritone while suggesting that the Prison Warden is someone who can both do his job and have feelings.
Jonathan Eyers as Owen Hart, father of the murdered girl, uses his own baritone to superb effect as he ‘explodes’ in despair before moving away from simply wanting to see the killer dead to wondering in what way that will achieve closure for him. Mark Christian Bautista reveals an accomplished tenor as Father Grenville, and cleverly makes the prison chaplain feel unlikeable without in any way resorting to caricature. There are also strong performances from Nancy Holt, who displays the required level of emotion as Joseph’s Mother, and Lorna McLean as Sister Rose, the person who most looks out for Sister Helen while she is looking out for others.
Dead Man Walking is certainly an interesting opera, but it is the strengths of the production, the orchestra and the cast that really make this offering from the GSMD worth seeing.
• On 1 and 6 March, several of the principal roles are taken by different performers to those described here.
• For details of all Guildhall School of Music & Drama events visit its website.