Any student performance of a work as complex and challenging as Jake Heggie’s breakthrough opera Dead Man Walking is bound to come with flaws attached, and so it proved on the opening night of this Guildhall production. First, the Silk Street Theatre once again proved more suitable for the spoken word than lyric theatre, its dry acoustic doing the singers few favours and leading to some major congestion in dramatic tuttis. Second, a technical hitch early on necessitated a delay that probably upset the company more than it did the audience. Third, the lack of printed programmes was an insult to the show’s creative team. Access to digital material doesn’t cut it when you’re sitting in an auditorium with a switched-off smartphone.

Michael Lafferty-Smith (Joseph), Jacob Harrison and Emyr Lloyd Jones (Guards)
© David Monteith

Strikingly, none of those flaws were down to the performers. Heggie’s debut opera (based like the 1995 film on the autobiographical book by Sister Helen Prejean) has been performed multiple times since its premiere in 2000 but only rarely in the UK, yet under Dominic Wheeler’s expert baton the musicians, all youthful if not downright young, gave a spectacular account of the harrowing score and surmounted its difficulties with aplomb. Never once in the three-hour running time was I reminded that this was not, technically, a professional performance.

The staging by Martin Lloyd-Evans was forced by the shallowness of the Silk Street stage to be set left-to-right with little or no depth. Despite that constraint he marshalled the company with panache and a practical eye for fluency within the stark contours of designer Anna Reid’s dehumanising environment of barred cells, whitewashed walls and lowering telegraph poles.

Michael Lafferty-Smith (Joseph) and Nancy Holt (Mrs de Rocher)
© David Monteith

In this tale of a young nun’s developing relationship with Joe de Rocher, a convicted murderer, a large ensemble cast revolved around just two main characters – three if we include Joe’s mother, a woman whom mezzo-soprano Nancy Holt imbued with pain and resilience as she held on fiercely to a steadfast love for her son. Her extraordinary performance turned a secondary role into something unforgettable.

As Joe, baritone Michael Lafferty was an intimidating mass of contradictory emotions. Full disclosure: the singer is someone I’ve known away from the opera circuit for many years, yet I barely recognised him through the simmering resentment, danger and vulnerability he exuded. He ran the gamut of moods and inflections, all expressed with a singular vocal beauty, and the feat of doing push-ups during his notorious eight-minute scena that opens Act 2 was astonishing.

Michael Lafferty-Smith (Joseph), Emyr Lloyd Jones (Guard) and Alexandra Meier (Sister Helen)
© David Monteith

Whether his character was guilty or innocent is another matter, a point that allowed for some late-evening jeopardy in the storytelling and also enabled the audience to see Sister Helen as someone who valued him for his soul, not his charge sheet. Past actions were immaterial to her spiritual love for the condemned man, as the outstanding young mezzo Alexandra Meier made abundantly clear in her stellar performance. Her expository soliloquy during a drive to the Louisiana State Penitentiary was so over-long that we practically cheered the traffic cop who pulled her over for speeding, yet Meier’s seraphic delivery of librettist Terrence McNally’s text-heavy inner monologue made a better case for it than the writing deserved.

Alexandra Meier (Sister Helen) and Jack Dolan (Motorcycle Cop)
© David Monteith

“None of that sentimental crap, okay?” may well be the hokiest quotation from an opera that’s entirely built on sentiment. Intentionally meta or not, the line served to highlight both the imperfect structure and the mainstream appeal of Heggie’s writing. He uses allusions to blues, gospel and popular classical music in order to relax the audience and manipulate their emotions. Wheeler’s 44-strong orchestra responded to the score with a tight reading that pointed up all that was good, bad or derivative within it, thus the prelude to murder was creepily Hollywood Noir, an Elvis Presley exchange was punctuated by an “uh-huh” sting and phrases redolent of Gershwin, Britten and Barber sprang up like leaks to ease the musical flow.