Visceral. Frightfully real. Paralyzing in its potency. These are words which I might use to try and describe Jake Heggie’s opera Dead Man Walking. One might justify the question: what more meaning and context can be siphoned from a work such as this which has already been a novel and film? Jake Heggie and librettist Terrence McNally have proven that Sister Helen Prejean’s story of a death row murderer who will not admit his crime has enough dramatic heft to survive so many reinterpretations.

Allyson McHardy & Étienne Dupuis © Yves Renaud
Allyson McHardy & Étienne Dupuis
© Yves Renaud

What was gained tonight on the stage which can’t be seen on a screen or on the printed page was a kind of in-your-face reality. The audience was, much like the murderer himself, locked in this story with no chance of respite or escape. This opera represents a powerful new American trend, a sort of neo-verismo, which draws from the direct cogency of music theatre. The libretto takes us into a world in which there is no dramatic barrier whatsoever. When you watch Verdi, Bellini or Mozart in the 21st century, you are constantly aware of a barrier of both a temporal and a social nature. The clear and common language of this libretto drags us helplessly into this world of violence and pain. Faulkner once said of Hemingway: “He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to a dictionary”, to which Hemingway replied, “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?”

The story begins and ends with essentially wordless drama. Two teenage lovers have parked their car by a lake late at night and are carrying on predictably as Joseph De Rocher (played by Etienne Dupuis) and his brother sneak up on them in the dark. The boy tries to defend his girlfriend to no avail, and a grisly rape-murder ensues. Later, on death row, De Rocher befriends the nun Sister Helen Prejean (Allyson McHardy) and becomes her pen pal, convincing her to visit him and become his spiritual guide during his last weeks on earth. She accepts, because she believes that no person is truly evil, urging him to admit his crimes so as to be forgiven.

Heggie’s score is at times as lushly orchestrated as Debussy, though more often tinged with Gershwinian strains of jazz and swing befitting the Louisiana backdrop. Maestro Wayne Marshall of the UK is perfectly at ease in this genre. The singing was magnificent tonight. Sister Prejean (McHardy) had an immense amount of singing throughout the night, and her expressive and demonstrative voice never showed signs of wear. She acted marvelously as well – not an easy task when portraying an Elvis-loving nun with a sharp, dry wit.

The convict De Rocher (Dupuis) was equally fantastic. His brawny voice cut through the hall with ease, at all times imbued entirely with character. He embodied all of De Rocher, from the savage violence to the nostalgia of rural southern life. At the beginning of Act II Dupuis actually performed over 30 push-ups – no easy feat! De Rocher’s mother’s (Kimberly Barber) desperate plea to the parole board to spare her son’s life was absolutely heartbreaking. At first she was formal, then she began to remember her son as all mothers do – as a young boy. One of the most gut-wrenching moments tonight was delivered in this same scene by the father of the murdered girl (Thomas Goertz) as he interrupted the mother’s plea, shouting “Your son stabbed my daughter 37 times! They couldn’t even find her school pin it was buried so deep in the wounds!”

Sister Prejean continues to help De Rocher find a way to admit his crime, despite the whole world raging in opposition to her aims. He is panicked, saying “I’m frightened of what this is doing to my Mama... and that the humaneness of lethal injection will hurt like f*cking hell!” The first act ends in utter pandemonium brought on by a stress-based hallucination as the whole cast entombs her from all angles, children maniacally shrieking and prisoners howling savagely over a wild orchestral tumult – she cannot take the pressure and collapses onto the ground.

Act II is essentially the difficult path towards De Rocher’s admission of guilt. When at last, after over two hours onstage Sister Prejean convinces him to admit his crime, bands of light pierced the minimal set to form a cross. “I killed her with my own two hands.” Weeping, De Rocher reached for Sister Prejean to no avail, for she was also weeping, as any vestige of hope she had of his innocence melted away. At that moment the cellos played the sound of a heartbeat coming to a stop.

For the scene of the execution, De Rocher is strapped to a table with arms outstretched – yet another Christ image, though I’m not sure the comparison was appreciated by the audience (one man during the curtain call was very intensely booing after the entrance of Prejean, possibly in protest of the notion of deserved forgiveness after such a crime). The process of attaching tubes to De Rocher’s arms for lethal injection seemed to last silent hours, and, after asking forgiveness to the parents he gazed into Prejean’s eyes and spoke his last words: “I love you.”

Tonight the staging, costumes, sets and lighting worked in perfect symbiosis, creating a formidably realistic environment from which to deliver this potent drama. I have scarcely been so moved in Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier.

*****