Dead Man Walking is currently the most frequently performed contemporary American opera. Joel Ivany's staging, first mounted in Vancouver, opened recently at Minnesota Opera just days after the opera's Spanish première in Madrid. Given the trenchant subject material of the opening scene, which depicts Joseph de Rocher's participation in the rape/murder incident for which he is on death row, the company offered patrons late seating; a considerable number chose to join the performance only as the second scene began. Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally's score switches gears substantially at that point, with the gritty lakeside attack yielding to Sister Helen and Sister Rose's singing of "He will gather us around" with the children of Hope House. For those familiar with the movie, Sister Helen sings the hymn when she sticks by Joseph's side as he approaches his execution. In the opera, it serves as a recurring refrain and reservoir of strength for the devoted nun as she navigates the challenges of serving as spiritual advisor for a felon facing the death penalty.

Catherine Martin (Sister Helen) and Seth Carico (Joseph De Rocher) © Cory Weaver
Catherine Martin (Sister Helen) and Seth Carico (Joseph De Rocher)
© Cory Weaver

A good deal of comedy punctuates the eventual revelation of De Rocher's sordid deeds, in part shaped through the naive optimism of Sister Helen. Catherine Martin energetically embodies Helen's headstrong and persevering nature, with Heggie's score suggesting uneasy enthusiasm for her mission during her long drive to the penitentiary in Angola. She ignores cautionary impulses from the seasoned and light-hearted prison pastor, sprightly sung by Dennis Peterson, while Benjamin Sieverding's penetrating Warden strikes a serious tone when he notes that he'll never get used to the executions. Karen Slack's passionate and luxurious performance of Sister Rose provides hefty support for Sister Helen when her nearly one-sided attention to the perpetrator is called into question. The ensemble whereby the parents of the murdered teens as well as De Rocher's mother recall mundane memories of their children is arrestingly effective, as is the kaleidoscopic Act 1 finale in which the entire cast crowds in upon Helen's unsteady awareness. The richest character in the cast is undoubtedly De Rocher's mother, with Emily Pulley portraying her strength to the fullest as she humanizes her son. When Joseph is on the verge of confessing his actions to her, she supplants his urge with the most glorious image of her love – a lasting image of her smile to carry with him to his death.

Dennis Petersen (Father Grenville) and Catherine Martin (Sister Helen) © Cory Weaver
Dennis Petersen (Father Grenville) and Catherine Martin (Sister Helen)
© Cory Weaver

Sex is a central theme, whether it be Joseph's anger at being spurned by a woman the night he set off with his brother on their drunken rampage or the obsession that forced celibacy in prison triggers. This generates a pervasive tension, which Seth Calico impressively conveyed as the fated convict. His physical presence was unsettling and even terrifying as he vocally traversed a vast landscape spanning cunning as well as fear. Heggie's music draws amply from American vernacular musics to suggest alternatively animalistic energy and sultry thoughts, exposing Sister Helen's lack of experience. Only her revelation that the truth will set De Rocher free resolves the tension, enabling him to understand love as his sentence is executed. Michael Christie's conducting maximized the sense of revelation when Helen ultimately coaxes De Rocher to revisit the scene of the crime mentally, and reveal his guilt.

Emily Pulley (Mrs Patrick De Rocher) © Cory Weaver
Emily Pulley (Mrs Patrick De Rocher)
© Cory Weaver

Ivany weaves haunting appearances of the two murdered teens throughout the second act, so their appearance in the final scene as witness to De Rocher's death carries added weight as their parents watch from above. However, as the father of the dead girl, Andrew Wilkowske's insight that De Rocher's death will not achieve anything positive lingers. Erhard Rom's tiered unit set places the parents as overseers of his death, and otherwise proved incredibly versatile. Projections swiftly created a steamy lakeside, and added texture to the more spartan prevailing environments. Oddly, the audience at the première felt the impulse to applaud after each set piece, although the score does not readily offer appropriate breaks and the subject matter resists such gestures.

****1