|Jordan Shanahan, Elise Quagliata|
© Ron Lindsey, 2011
What: Dead Man Walking
When: August 19 through 27, 2011
Where: Union Avenue Christian Church
As I’ve noted in the past, Union Avenue Opera isn’t shy about tackling material that pushes the company’s artistic and physical limits. Sometimes, as with last month’s Turandot, the results have been mixed. With the local premiere of Dead Man Walking, the result is a searing and riveting presentation that is simply one of best local opera productions since Opera Theatre’s Glorianna back in 2005. Union Avenue couldn’t have chosen a better way to end their 2011 season.
Absolutely every aspect of Union Avenue’s work is spot on. The cast, headed by mezzo Elise Quagliata as Sister Helen Prejean, is first-rate both vocally and theatrically—as good a collection of singers and actors (some roles are non-singing) as you will find anywhere. Tim Ocel’s direction is clear and focused, assisted by Patrick Huber’s set, which makes smart use of large, mobile chain-link fence units to suggest the oppressive prison atmosphere and also enable fast and fluid scene changes. Artistic director and conductor Scott Schoonover holds Jake Heggie’s complex and evocative score together beautifully, despite the challenges presented by the large number of singers and the difficult acoustics of the Union Avenue space. Kaitlyn Breen’s lighting nicely delineates playing areas and Teresa Doggett’s costumes effectively capture the feel of rural 1980s Louisiana.
The libretto—by noted playwright Terrence McNally, based on Sister Helen Prejean’s memoir of her experiences ministering to convicted killers in the Louisiana prison system—is literate and imaginative. It might benefit for an edit here and there, especially in the long “driving to Angola” scene and during some moments in the second act that struck me a repetitive, but on the whole it’s a remarkably gripping and, for the most part, even-handed look at the difficult emotional and ethical questions raised by America’s justice, prison, and execution system. The character of convicted murderer Joseph de Rocher is, perhaps, less repellant and more willing to seek atonement than the real-life killers that Sister Helen counseled, but this IS fiction, after all. You can’t put real life on stage without considerable modification.
Baritone Jordan Shanahan doesn’t so much sing and act the role of de Rocher as inhabit it. Ditto for soprano Debra Hillabrand as de Rocher’s long-suffering mother. Their scenes neatly capture their characters’ tragic situation. David Dillard, Stephanie Tennill, Cecelia Stearman and Jon Garrett create a powerful quartet of murder victim parents. Robert Reed is a strong presence as the sympathetic Angola warden George Benton, nicely contrasting with Clark Sturdevant’s work as the callous prison chaplain, Father Grenville. Phillip Touchette has a charming cameo as a motorcycle cop who stops the speeding Sister Helen on her way to Angola, only to tear up the ticket as ask her to pray for his sick mother.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Dead Man Walking, though, is the score. Mr. Heggie’s music is clearly “modern” without any of the deliberately off-putting clangor that characterizes a lot of the newer stuff in concert halls these days. Southern American folk, blues and popular music ideas are woven neatly and seamlessly into the aural fabric. It’s both accessible and smart, which is a neat trick.
Dead Man Walking is an emotionally draining and sometimes difficult work that is not for the faint of heart or mind, but it’s well worth seeing and hearing. No matter what your view of capital punishment might be, this opera will challenge it in much the same way that the real Sister Helen’s ministry challenges comfortable and complacent notions about Christ’s message. It’s good to know that serious, theatrically canny composers are still writing operas out there, and Union Avenue deserves hearty applause for bringing this work to St. Louis for the first time.
The opera runs through August 27 at the Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union at Enright in the Central West End. It’s sung in English with projected titles that are easily visible throughout the theatre. That’s a plus, given how unintelligible some of the lyrics are rendered by the acoustics, especially in the big choral scenes. For more information, you may visit unionavenueopera.org.