By Jake Heggie
Presented by San Francisco Opera
At the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, CA
Conducted by Patrick Summers
Directed by Joe Mantello

Reviewed by Judy Richter

Lotfi Mansouri, general director of the San Francisco Opera, has given the operatic world a most welcome gift in his final season after 14 years at the SFO helm. Mansouri commissioned composer Jake Heggie and playwright Terrence McNally to create Dead Man Walking, based on the award-winning book by Sister Helen Prejean. Then Mansouri gave them an outstanding team of directors and designers along with a sterling cast whose world-class singing is equaled by their acting.

Sister Helen's book, which also inspired the 1996 film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, concerns her experiences as a spiritual advisor to Death Row inmates at Louisiana State Penitentiary. In particular, it concerns a man who was convicted of brutally murdering a young couple after raping the woman. Sister Helen's relationship with him led her on a profound spiritual journey that taught her the meaning of pure love and pure forgiveness channeled from God through her.

Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham portrays Sister Helen's determination, doubts and humility, successfully meeting the physical and emotional demands of this challenging role. Her singing is beautiful and precise throughout her wide range. Like all of her colleagues, she expresses her feelings in her singing -- a tribute to Heggie's insightful composing.

Baritone John Packard makes his SFO debut as Joseph de Rocher, the convicted murdered whom Sister Helen counsels. Packard's de Rocher at first comes across as a hardened criminal, not only unrepentant but also insistent that he is an innocent man. Nevertheless, he admits that he's frightened of dying, and he truly loves his mother and brothers. Packard's singing is rich and strong, his acting good. Despite his tough-guy air, he seems small and vulnerable whenever his guards (the excellent David Okerlund and Philip Horst) confront him.

Although most of his scenes with Sister Helen are serious, the two connect on a more relaxed level when she tells him that she saw Elvis Presley perform in Las Vegas when she was a girl. His eyes light up, and he and she drop their reserve as they talk about their shared love of the King and as Heggie's music recalls Presley's style. It's a delightful scene. (Teddy Tahu Rhodes and Kristine Jepson step into the roles for some performances.)

Completing the trio of principals is mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade as Mrs. de Rocher, Joseph's mother. The celebrated singer eschews any trappings of the diva to appear as a simple, vulnerable woman who has had a tough life and who has done her best to raise her sons properly. Unaccustomed to being in the public eye, she reads the words that Sister Prejean has written for her as she pleads with the state pardons board to spare her son's life. It's a heart-wrenching scene as this woman -- so out of her natural element -- talks about his difficult childhood yet upholds her deep-seated belief in his goodness.

Her grief is matched by the two victims' parents, who also attend the hearing. Baritone Robert Orth and soprano Nicolle Foland as the girl's parents, and tenor Gary Rideout and mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook as the boy's parents bear both grief and anger over the loss of their children. They know nothing can bring their children back, and they want the murderer put to death, yet deep down they wouldn't put another person, such as Joseph's mother, through their agony. These conflicting emotions are well-expressed in a sextet for the parents, Mrs. de Rocher and Sister Helen, who can only say how sorry she is.

Von Stade also shares Mrs. de Rocher's deepest sorrow and helplessness with the audience in the second act as she and her two younger sons (Eli Borggraefe and Mario Sawaya) say goodbye to Joseph a few hours before the execution. Though their words are ordinary, their music conveys their emotions, as do their gestures. The most heart-rending part of this scene is that the guards won't let her touch him, let alone hug or kiss him, one last time.

Other noteworthy singers include soprano Theresa Hamm-Smith as Sister Rose, Sister Helen's friend and confidante; tenor Jay Hunter Morris as the prison chaplin; and bass John Ames as the prison warden.

Director Joe Mantello makes good use of his theatrical credits as an actor and director, staging each scene for its utmost dramatic impact. Likewise, conductor Patrick Summers shapes the musical lines and elicits the power from Heggie's score through his leadership of the excellent orchestra and chorus. Michael Yeargan's set designs are fluid yet evocative, especially during Sister Helen's first visit to the prison, when she senses what it's like to be locked up 24 hours a day. Jennifer Tipton's lighting complements and amplifies the sets, while Sam Fleming's costumes reveal unspoken details about the characters and their lives.

In addition to the moving story written by Sister Helen, the skillful adaptation by McNally for his first opera libretto and Heggie's expressive, melodic music for his first opera, what stands out about this production is everyone's utmost dedication to and trust in it. Mansouri -- thanks to a gift by longtime SFO patron Phyllis Wattis -- has assembled a team of extraordinary artists who have applied not just their talent and artistry but their hearts to this new opera.

SFO audiences have rewarded their efforts by buying tickets in record-setting numbers and leading the Opera to schedule an additional performance -- a very rare happening. Dead Man Walking deserves to be heard by other audiences as well. Opera Pacific has scheduled it for its 2001-2002 season, and Erato has recorded it for release later this year. KQED San Francisco, the local public TV station, has produced a one-hour documentary, "The Making of Dead Man Walking," that is planned for a national broadcast next year.

For more information, see the San Francisco Opera home page.

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Monday, 08-Dec-2003 21:44:55 PST