Opera can be shamelessly over the top, even ludicrous, and still succeed in entertaining us. In fact it often is, and does. What it cannot be — what by definition it is not, almost — is mundane. And yet a kind of unadorned, gently touching sobriety seems to be just what the creators of “Dead Man Walking,” the opera based on the book that also inspired the acclaimed movie, are striving for. With a terse vernacular libretto by Terrence McNally and self-effacing music by Jake Heggie that sounds like the soundtrack for an opera rather than the thing itself, “Dead Man Walking” seems bent on getting out of its own way, allowing the audience to ponder the moral questions raised without the distraction of roiling emotions.
With the action confined to fluorescent-lit environments of the prison and the courtroom, scope for dramatic development is limited. And McNally has chosen to limit it even further. As he tells the story of Sister Helen Prejean’s friendship with convicted murderer Joseph de Rocher, he focuses on the question of whether de Rocher, who hotly denies responsibility, eventually will confess to the crime and seek forgiveness. But lest the audience be swept away from sober consideration of this painful human drama by suspense, it is made clear from the opening scene, in which the murder is enacted, that Joseph is indeed guilty. Documentary values seem to take precedence over dramatic ones; full disclosure seems a paramount consideration.
Maybe that’s why there are few surprises in McNally’s libretto. The good-hearted Sister Helen says what we expect (to Sister Rose, who criticizes her sympathy for de Rocher, “We’re all God’s children”; to the parents of the victims, “I’m sorry”; to de Rocher, “The Bible says, ‘The truth will set you free’ “). The belligerent de Rocher, the bitter parents of his victims and the killer’s overwhelmed mother all hit the predictable emotional notes, aside from a few, rather forced jokes, such as Sister Helen and de Rocher bonding over Elvis. (A fine, notable exception — and perhaps the most touching and arresting moment in the opera — comes in the final interview between de Rocher and his mother, when it’s made clear that the killer’s mother does not want to know the truth and desperately cuts short his attempt to confess.)
Heggie’s well-crafted music likewise seems strenuously to avoid the extraordinary. A sweet and mournful little gospel refrain opens and closes the opera effectively, if sentimentally, and a couple of ensemble numbers work up some steam as the increasing tension is signified by rhythmic pulsing from the strings. But real moments of inspiration are lacking, and without making note of the general influences that give it an authentic American flavor — Gershwin here, Bernstein there, a little Copland — Heggie’s score would be hard to describe.
Leonard Foglia’s fluid direction helps engender a certain amount of momentum, and he elicits expert, unassumingly strong performances from his cast. Mezzo Joyce DiDonato, winner of opera’s prestigious Richard Tucker Award, makes a powerful New York opera debut in the role of Sister Helen. Singing with clear, even tone throughout her range, DiDonato gives a restrained and intelligent reading of a character that could easily be interpreted more sentimentally. Baritone John Packard, who created the role of de Rocher at the opera’s San Francisco preem two seasons ago, has charisma to spare and a firm voice he adorns with an apt, slightly rough edge. Adina Aaron, as Helen’s confidante Sister Rose, and Sheryl Woods, as de Rocher’s awkward mother, are terrific in their supporting roles.
The larger themes of “Dead Man Walking” — forgiveness and retribution, life and death, good and evil, love and hate — certainly have operatic potential. (Think of the gorgeous finale of “Le Nozze di Figaro,” in which a wife’s forgiveness of a merely straying husband inspires some of Mozart’s most sublime strains.) But the execution of the opera puts the emphasis on the prosaic: The action includes Sister Helen almost getting a speeding ticket and collapsing in front of a Coke machine. And the decision to eschew music during the moments when de Rocher is executed may inadvertently reveal something about the creators’ attitude toward their subject. They presumably felt music would be inappropriate here, that the action itself was powerful enough without it.
They may well be right. But one is left with the conclusion that this grave respect for the powerful documentary truth of their subject, this reticence toward the material they’ve chosen, is precisely what undermines the opera.