MTLOpera – Dead Man Walking

Composer : Jake Heggie Cast : Allyson McHardy, Etienne Dupuis, Kimberly Barber, Chantale Nurse I must say I was intr...

Composer: Jake Heggie
Cast: Allyson McHardy, Etienne Dupuis, Kimberly Barber, Chantale Nurse

I must say I was intrigued when I saw "Dead Man Walking" on the Montreal Opera’s 2012-2013 program; intrigued as to how the poignant narrative would translate to the stage, and how the script would resonate while sung in opera.  After all, when we think of the genre it tends to be of the classical variety, with sweeping emotions lived out on stage through a grand musical score.   

Based on both the 1995 Oscar-winning film of the same name by Tim Robbins, starring Susan Sarandon as Sister Helen Prejean and Sean Penn as Joseph De Rocher, as well as the book by Sister Prejean detailing her experience ministering to a convicted murderer on death row, American composer Jake Heggie and librettist Terrence McNally’s opera version was first performed in San Francisco in 2000, and has since been recognized in the ‘as-yet-unwritten-in-stone’ repertoire of masterful new opera oeuvres.

For those unfamiliar with the story, prisoner Joe De Rocher awaits the day of his execution by lethal injection, having run out of time and options to save his life.  He writes to Sister Prejean who decides, against much controversy, that no matter the crime, every man is deserving of God’s grace and love. To her, there is no choice but to visit the prison, and become for the inmate his spiritual advisor. 

For those like myself who have seen the film, the opera reveals nothing new to the storyline, and adapts many of the same scenes very well, with the omnipresent grey prison walls acting as a backdrop for much of the action. Not an opera in the typical sense with characters breaking off into grand arias, and not a musical with upbeat, memorable numbers and catchy choruses, the piece felt more like a stage play, but instead of speaking the dialogue, lines are sung to a straightforward, musically adept score.

For an actual duration of 2h 45mins, with a 15min. intermission, the performance wasn’t particularly long, except some sequences dragged on, and much of the libretto rang the same notes as much of the characters’ discourse was taken up by their driving pre-occupations: Joe and his plight, and Sister Helen’s single-minded determination - all of it within the contextual debate on the humaneness, or lack thereof, behind capital punishment.

In fairness I have to place myself in the shoes of someone not familiar with the subject matter or Hollywood movie – as such, the show performs amazingly well. One major reason is without question the chemistry between the two leads, a burly and brawny Etienne Dupuis, and petite, feisty Allyson McHardy, and the fine counterpoint they offer one another, such as when they communicate across a glass panel in what we understand to be the inmate visiting room, to the final climax in the execution room. Of stand-out mention was Kimberly Barber as De Rocher’s poor, illiterate Mother who will stand behind her son regardless of anything. Naturally, opening night applause flowed freely, but was nonetheless subdued thanks to the heavy, morality-laden subject matter. Ultimately, Dead Man Walking is a fine piece of modern opera, and should engage both purists as well as those new to the genre.

Premiere at the Company and in Quebec
March 9, 12, 14, 16, 2013
7:30 pm

Duration: 2:45 Hrs.
Intermission: 1 
Hall: Wilfrid-Pelletier
Location: Place des Arts

Sung in English with English and French surtitles

Tickets and informations: Place des Arts' website


Terrence McNally 9058438125999039062

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