Ecstatically received at its 2000 San Francisco Opera premiere — where the company even scheduled an additional performance — Jake Heggie’s operatic transformation of Sister Helen Prejean’s harrowing death-row memoir is moving out toward broader horizons. Opera Pacific’s version, which evoked comparable ecstasy at its premiere, is reduced somewhat from the grandiose San Francisco staging and therefore fit to travel: It moves on to the New York City Opera in September. “Dead Man Walking” thus joins the growing list of operatic excavations of America’s literary heritage; “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “The Great Gatsby” and “Cold Sassy Tree” are recent examples. The masterpiece remains out of reach, however.
Tony-winning playwright Terrence McNally draws his libretto more from the Prejean novel than from the well-regarded Tim Robbins film, and he has invested its central plotline — the struggles between pride and conscience in a condemned killer — with a full operatic panoply: dream sequences, hallucinations, ensembles. To this intricate and demanding structure, Bay Area composer Jake Heggie responds with a score most kindly described as serviceable.
It’s a strange kind of music, full of gestures of undeniable physical strength but no actual physiognomy. In the opera’s most successful scene, a confrontation between the parents of the murdered teenagers, the convicted killer’s mother and the nun bent on the quest for reconciliation, six splendid and strong voices pound away at one another in time-honored operatic fashion (think “Tosca”). The drama comes across; the melodic substance far less. One has to wonder if this could be the world’s first opera without music.
Yet the 41-year-old Heggie exhibits a fair command of operatic trickery, nowhere more impressive than at the end. The execution of the killer (renamed from Prejean’s “Matt” to the more singable “Joe”) is done in silence, followed at the curtain by Sister Helen’s unaccompanied hymn-tune.
As in San Francisco, veteran mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade draws tears and chills as the killer’s mother. Soprano Kristine Jepson’s depiction of the troubled Sister Helen has its pretty moments, but pales (as who wouldn’t) against the driven desperation of Susan Graham’s San Francisco performance (now available in the live-performance recording on Erato). As the killer, John Packard repeats his San Francisco perf but is put to shame in this instance by memories of the insidious charisma of Sean Penn’s film persona.
On designer Michael McGarty’s multilevel set, with its rising and descending panels suggesting a chorus of automated guillotines, framed by a complex web of staircases and shards of chain link, director Michael Foglia has devised an action plan in perpetual motion. Opera Pacific’s music director John DeMain, who also will conduct the New York performances, draws classy playing from his pit band.