With more than 300 performances since its première in San Francisco in 2000, Dead Man Walking is one of the few recent operas that have made it to the Contemporary canon. Its well-known story, told with straightforward narrative, and Jake Heggie’s superb score have captivated operagoers on both sides of the Atlantic. For this successful Spanish première, the Teatro Real has made a safe bet, assembling an experienced cast and hiring a praised production from the Chicago Lyric Opera.

Joyce DiDonato (Sister Helen) © Javier del Real | Teatro Real
Joyce DiDonato (Sister Helen)
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real

Based on the bestseller by Sister Helen Prejean and best known for its film adaptation, Dead Man Walking tells the story of a Catholic nun who undertakes the role of spiritual adviser to Joseph de Rocher, a convicted murderer on Death Row. Librettist Terrence McNally gracefully avoids the sociological and racial context of Angola State Penitentiary (frankly, the elephant on the stage) and focuses on the trascendental encounter of Sister Helen’s journey of faith and de Rocher’s fall into the abyss. In a consequential choice, the opera puts the crime at the prologue, as the trigger of a chain of sorrow in which the death penalty fails to be the closing link. Since the audience has no doubts about De Rocher’s guilt, every element of the story contributes to a pristine narrative arch that leads to the climatic confession, when Helen and De Rocher join in a bliss of love and redemption. 

Measha Brueggergosman (Sister Rose) and Joyce DiDonato (Sister Helen) © Javier del Real | Teatro Real
Measha Brueggergosman (Sister Rose) and Joyce DiDonato (Sister Helen)
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real

This linear narrative structure was reinforced by Leonard Foglia’s effective staging, more successful in providing clarity and rhythm than in giving depth to the story. The characters were perfectly defined through realistic gestures, from the hearty and adventurous Sister Helen to the touchy and rude de Rocher. Michael McGarty’s sets were visually modest, downplaying the Southern traits in favour of the intended universality of the plot, but worked perfectly in scene transitions. Foglia portrays the execution in all its crudity, kindling an instinctive condemnation that might prove more effective than any blunt political discourse, of which the production, as the opera itself, steers  clear.

Above all, it is Heggie’s brilliant score what makes this opera memorable. In the best tradition of American composers, he masterfully combines lyrical expansion with narrative pulse. His music is tonal and melodic, with clever use of expressive dissonances and light doses of folk music, blues and spirituals. It is the characters who bear the burden of the drama, all of them well developed in long intimate scenes and characterised with recognisable themes that evolve along the story. Unlike many contemporary composers, Heggie does not seem interested in complicated orchestral textures and his pragmatism and compromise with narrative clarity leaves little room to abstraction. There are some orchestral explosions though, especially at the end of both acts, where the orchestra of the Teatro Real, conducted by Mark Wigglesworth, sounded blurry, unable to disentangle all the musical layers. However, they succeeded in underlining Heggie’s clean melodies and sustaining a vivid rhythm during the whole performance.

Michael Mayes (Joseph De Rocher) and Joyce DiDonato (Sister Helen) © Javier del Real | Teatro Real
Michael Mayes (Joseph De Rocher) and Joyce DiDonato (Sister Helen)
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real

A devoted composer of songs, Heggie definitely knows how to write sympathetically and uses the human voice for expressing the characters' humanity, that spins in long melodic archs. This is especially true with De Rocher's mother: while the rest struggle to find this redemptive vocal expansion, she comes to it naturally in her long scene in Act 1, setting the moral standard of the story. Maria Zifchak made the most of it with her rich mezzo and perfect technique. Her monologue showed a whole palette of feelings and the line “Haven’t we all suffered enough?”, delivered with dignity and emotion, resonated poignantly in the house.

Joyce DiDonato surely knows her Sister Helen. Although she combined moments of truly inspired acting with others a bit over the top, she played Sister Helen with hearty gesture and frank charisma. The role was written for Susan Graham and DiDonato's lighter mezzo may be today a bit far from Graham's creamy central notes, but she has come to own the role with solid singing, perfect diction and candid phrasing.

Michael Mayes (Joseph De Rocher) © Javier del Real | Teatro Real
Michael Mayes (Joseph De Rocher)
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real

Michael Mayes defied other interpretations of the role and conveyed a ruder, harsher De Rocher, always led by his instincts. His sturdy baritone paid off in the most violent phrases but he was also able to portray all the nuances of the character, from the bravado and sensuality of his first encounter with Helen to the candid acceptance of his fears in Act 2. Measha Brueggergosman’s Sister Rose provided warm confort to Helen’s troubles but her performance was tainted by blurred diction and strained high notes. Toni Marsol and Roger Padullés stood out among the solid all-Spanish cast playing the supporting roles. Judging from the audience's warm reception, they’d better keep their copies of the score close to hand.