It’s Super Bowl weekend in Atlanta and there are parties galore to draw everyone’s attention. Yet somehow, one opera drew a substantial audience of patrons to watch a gut-wrenching story of redemption. Dead Man Walking is an opera based on a book by Sister Helen Prejean, a well-known anti-death penalty advocate, with music by Jake Heggie and libretto by Terrence McNally. Prejean and Heggie were in the audience for this opening night.

Jamie Barton (Sister Helen Prejean) and Michael Mayes (Joseph De Rocher) © Jeff Roffman
Jamie Barton (Sister Helen Prejean) and Michael Mayes (Joseph De Rocher)
© Jeff Roffman

The story begins with an horrific crime, including rape, a shooting and multiple stabbings; it leaves no doubt as to who the perpetrator was so that questions of guilt or innocence are not be addressed in the plot. Rather, the story is about Sister Helen’s personal redemption as she struggles with being able to forgive Joseph De Rocher for his heinous acts. It is also about De Rocher’s personal redemption as he finally owns up to his role in the murders. However, the collateral damage to the families of De Rocher and those of his victims are largely unaddressed, except possibly through whatever satisfaction they might have received through his execution, as carried out by the machinery of government. The opera ends with a potent and terrifying scene, where De Rocher, strapped to a gurney, is tipped toward the audience. His crucifixion-like pose is echoed in the large cross in the backdrop. Sterile medical personnel in white latex gloves insert needles and push the buttons that administer the lethal concoction of drugs, all done in a neatly efficient professional manner that somehow diminishes the hard-won personal redemptions. Throughout the opera, the phrase “I’m sorry” is spoken repeatedly, and often it seemed simply a code for something more deeply personal and complex, yet ultimately beyond the characters' abilities to articulate. For example, when Prejean says “I am sorry” to the parents of the victims when they reject her support of De Rocher, it is as if she is saying the situation is unbearable; it's about her feelings about the state of our existence and culture – not simply her apology to grieving families.

The opera begins with an appropriately ominous overture. This performance was marred by some striking intonation issues with the Atlanta Opera Orchestra, under the direction of Joseph Mechavich, but as the evening progressed, their playing became assured and competent. Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, a local singer with an international reputation, portrayed Sister Prejean. Barton’s voice was a little unstable in the first scene, and she struggled to be heard above the chorus and orchestra; nevertheless, she was a compelling Sister Helen. Baritone Michael Mayes portrayed Joseph De Rocher. Mayes is a large muscular presence on stage, which added significantly to his character’s fearsomeness and loathsomeness. His voice was consistently strong, his articulation wonderful.

Jay Hunter Morris (Father Grenville) and Jamie Barton (Sister Helen) © Jeff Roffman
Jay Hunter Morris (Father Grenville) and Jamie Barton (Sister Helen)
© Jeff Roffman

There were several notable vocal performances. Maria Zifchak sang the role of De Rocher’s mother and her mezzo was powerfully full, adding a certain dignity to her character. Soprano Karen Slack portrayed Sister Rose, a close confidante of Prejean, and was impressive when singing a spiritual in the opening scene, but she had some difficulty with articulation when singing full out. It was sometimes necessary to rely on the supertitles to understand the text. The warden, played by Kevin Burdette, had a clear, strong voice that fit his character perfectly.

Dead Man Walking is credited as being the most performed 21st-century opera, and with good reason. It takes the audience into a world that is like a parallel universe to their own, yet one that is for the most part unknowable for the vast majority of people. This is a libretto-driven opera and Terrence McNally has created a multi-layered drama that explores the multitude of issues surrounding the death penalty in the United States. But of course, an opera must also have music and what of the score by Jake Heggie? At its best, it provides smart accompaniment to the libretto, never drawing attention to itself, and never really standing out. It does what it is supposed to do, but it is not particularly daring and it never takes on a character of its own. It has reminders of the work of Copland, Bernstein and even Ligeti; that is not to say it is derivative, but rather it openly reveals its heritage.

Finally, the staging was magnificent, establishing the cage-like prison with stark reality and the execution chamber as an inhuman and nightmarish space. This was a fine performance of a compelling contemporary drama. The Atlanta Opera, and production director Tomer Zvulun, deserve much credit for presenting it in such a dramatic and direct way.

****1