‘Dead Man Walking’ is an emotional punch in the gut

Dead Man Walking” opened Saturday night at Lyric Opera of Chicago.  (Photo by Andrew Cioffi)

What: “Dead Man Walking”
Where: Lyric Opera,
20 N. Wacker Dr.
When: Through Nov. 22
Tickets: Lyricopera.org

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

One of the most anticipated events on the local opera calendar for this fall has been Lyric Opera of Chicago’s long overdue offering of “Dead Man Walking,” which opened on Saturday night to a large and appreciative audience. This work, which premiered in San Francisco more than 19 years ago, propelled composer Jake Heggie into the spotlight. With librettist Terrence McNally, Heggie created an opera based on the bestselling 1993 book by Catholic nun Sister Helen Prejean. “Dead Man Walking” had already found success in Hollywood, with a powerful film adaptation in 1995 starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn.

Heggie and McNally were able to distill a sprawling, detailed story into about two-and-a-half hours of emotional storytelling focused on pain, regret, anger, and fear. But what was most important to Sister Helen, and she communicated this clearly to the opera creators, was that the idea of redemption must shine through.

The opera opens with a pair of carefree teens skinny-dipping late at night. A pair of men accost them, and the confrontation leads to murder of the young man and the rape and murder of the young woman. We are left in no doubt from the very beginning that Joseph De Rocher committed a brutal and horrific crime. There is no question of his innocence. De Rocher is found guilty of rape and murder and sentenced to death.

Yet Sister Helen agrees to become his spiritual advisor, a religious guide who hopes to reach deep inside him to find his ability to admit his crime and seek redemption from God. De Rocher’s anger and arrogance, his insistence that he is innocent, and his unspoken fear of death create a powerful barrier.

“Dead Man Walking” is an emotional punch in the gut for the viewer. As Sister Helen counsels De Rocher and tries to find a way to bring him to truth (which will bring him to God), she is confronted by the parents of the murder victims. They cannot fathom how she appears to take the side of the vicious criminal and not the innocent young victims. Sister Helen also comes to know De Rocher’s family, notably his single mother who clings to sweet memories of her son as a child and cannot bear to consider his guilt.

It’s a story that challenges us, that frightens us, and that uplifts us.

Lyric Opera as assembled a fine cast with Ryan McKinny as De Rocher. Well-muscled and extensively tattooed, McKinny swaggers across the tiny boundaries of his cell or the prison room where he meets with Sister Helen. McKinny’s bass-baritone is burnished and clear. He knows how to spit and snarl while he sings. His bravado is all the more disturbing as it slowly melts away to expose his fear of death. His final words are not elegant, but they are directed at the parents of his victims. He admits his crimes and apologizes. The story in no way exonerates him, merely opens us to the idea that more death may not be the answer. McKinny brings us a warts-and-all De Rocher, a rapist and murderer whose soul is at last exposed. He has little to give those who survived his crime, but he gives them that little bit before dying by lethal injection.

Soprano Patricia Racette makes her role debut as Sister Helen. The part is written for mezzo-soprano, so it is a little surprising that Racette struggles at times with pitches that aren’t terribly high. Her vibrato is at times out of control, making it rough going. Yet Racette is a strong singing actress, and she does a splendid job of making Sister Helen’s part in all of this a journey of discovery: of God’s plan for her and how she learns that even the vilest among us have something to gain from redemption.

Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, who created the role of Sister Helen at the world premiere of this opera (and never sang the part again), is magnificent as Mrs. De Rocher, the murderer’s mother. Her almost child-like belief in her son’s innocence and bewilderment that he cannot be freed is heartbreaking. She sings with such clarity and detail that we readily count her among her son’s victims.

Sister Rose is an amalgam of the nuns who work with Sister Helen and is portrayed with great dignity by soprano Whitney Morrison, an alumna of Lyric’s Ryan Center. She has sweet top notes and, at appropriate times, a scolding edge, as she tries to help Sister Helen understand the complex situation and how it is affecting her.

Baritone Gordon Hawkins is a fine prison warden, hardened and realistic, yet offering a sliver of deference to Sister Helen. Tenor Clay Hilley is a chilly Father Grenville, the prison chaplain who cannot see the point of working with De Rocher.

The parents of the victims never let us forget how their lives have been cast into despair and anguish. Their time on stage is relatively brief, but they are vital in providing the living reminder of the aftermath of brutal crimes. Bass-baritone Wayne Tigges offers an emotionally wrenching picture of the murdered girl’s father. Lauren Decker, Talise Trevigne, and Allan Glassman are excellent as the other parents.

Members of the Chicago Children’s Chorus appear as children in Sister Helen’s school and are cute and perky, if somewhat anemic in sound. The men of the Lyric Opera Chorus, on the other hand, are vibrant and forceful.

Nicole Paiement, only the second woman to lead the Lyric Opera Orchestra for a main stage production, does a solid job in the pit, although the opening prelude lacks some focus and she occasionally let the orchestra overwhelm the singers. Her pacing is superb, and she draws out the drama in the score.

The production is one that has been used at several regional opera companies, including Cincinnati, Baltimore, Austin, and Pittsburgh. It concentrates on physical incarceration — cages, cells, fences, barbed wire — but also effectively conveys the idea of the incarceration of the soul. It is slick and effective, save for the projected images when Sister Helen first travels to the prison. These are a dull and unimaginative waste in an otherwise wisely judged whole. Is this a future plan for Lyric — letting smaller companies establish the effectiveness of productions before Lyric takes them on? It’s an interesting idea.

“Dead Man Walking” is a searing portrait of crime and punishment where there are no winners and many losers, but it asks us important questions about life and death. I highly recommend this thoughtful and deeply moving opera.