A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Apr 26, 2014
01:28 AM
Classically Speaking

'Dead Man Walking' Conquers Another City

PHOTO COURTESY OF JAMES GILL PHOTOGRAPHY

Michael Mayes as Joseph De Rocher and Daniela Mack as Sister Helen Prejean

In one of the most anticipated opening nights in the history of Madison Opera, the performance of Dead Man Walking Friday night capped what may go down as the finest overall season in the fifty-plus years of the company. Everything you’ve read or heard about the opera is true: It is not a polemic against the death penalty, it has stretches of almost unbearable intensity that are arguably without equal in the world of opera, the music is memorable, singable and compelling…and it transcends the art form as only true masterpieces can.

In other words: It came…They sang…We were conquered.

A nearly full Overture Hall audience seemed primed for a performance that certainly came with some pedigree. Conductor John DeMain led a multi-company consortium that in 2002 created the first new production after the stunning 2000 premiere in San Francisco, and literally has conducted it from coast to coast. Director Kristine McIntyre (the first woman to direct the opera that has now been done by nearly forty companies) was part of the San Francisco staff when it was created. Susanne Mentzer may have been making her Madison Opera debut, but spends most of her time in places like the Metropolitan Opera and Carnegie Hall. And then there is Michael Mayes, who Heggie has described as incomparable in his portrayal of the tortured convict.

And let’s not forget to credit Madison Opera’s own general director, Kathryn Smith, who proposed the idea to DeMain—before they realized she was in the audience when he conducted it at New York City Opera in 2002. They share a rabid passion for the work, and should be justly proud and satisfied that they brought it to Madison.

But the work’s track record speaks for itself, and Heggie’s music comes out of the great tradition of Gershwin and Bernstein: a natural sounding amalgam of American influences, clothed in compelling orchestration and gratefully written for the voice. Along with a brilliantly crafted libretto by Terrence McNally, the story of a young nun who unexpectedly finds herself a spiritual adviser to a convicted rapist/murderer in Louisiana in the early 1980 is of course based on the real life story of Sister Helen Prejean, whose book was first made into the celebrated film by Tim Robbins, et al—but the opera raises the emotional intensity to even greater depths.

The brutal opening, depicting the crime on a darkened stage but uncomfortably graphic nonetheless, lets us know that Joseph De Rocher is really guilty; he spends most of the opera denying it. This sets the principal dynamic in motion, as the real Sister Helen emphasized to Heggie and McNally that this is primarily a story of redemption. But it is also about all the suffering, of the parents of the victims, of  De Rocher’s buried guilt, Sister Helen’s doubts about her ability to see this through (and not always sure what that goal is), and De Rocher’s mother willing to believe her son’s innocence, but knowing she is about to lose him nonetheless.

Even on a first hearing of the CD (and by the way, I kept forgetting to ask Heggie why oh why there is no video document yet of this stunning work), it is Scene 8 of Act I that grips you. While waiting to hear which way the final pardoning hearing will be decided, Sister Helen is confronted by the parents. Ultimately a sextet develops, with the overlapping themes of suffering and doubt reflected in different ways by the parents, Sister Helen and Mrs. De Rocher (Mentzer's role). Sure enough, this was the moment that brought us to a new level on the gut-wrenching meter since the opera’s opening, with Daniela Mack as Sister Helen suddenly lost in doubt and remorse, and Alan Dunbar as Owen Hart, father of the murdered girl achingly acidic in his anger. But if there was any doubt that the second act could ultimately match or top it in intensity, the confession scene is searing, and we scarcely catch our breath before the march to the death chamber begins.

Mack gave us a complete performance. Her resume is already studded by numerous great houses, and we are fortunate to experience her in this role as she appears to be cresting toward true greatness. Mayes has already achieved it, in this role at least, and it is by no means one-dimensional. As frightening and convincing as Mayes is from the black and white standpoint of criminal evil, it is a far greater trick to get us to feel any varying degrees of remorse by the end as we see him die by lethal injection, but Mayes manages that, too.

Throughout, DeMain brought his Madison Symphony to a new level, further evidence that this has been a year of significant growth for the ensemble. When great orchestras respond emotionally to new and challenging music, the results are electric, and the only thing coming out of the Overture Hall pit were glorious sounds, moving seamlessly through Heggie’s inflected styles and rising to sumptuous climaxes each time it was required.

There is no way to predict how an audience will respond at the end; on Friday the applause started almost immediately, but not in a huge outburst. But it built inexorably, growing in volume and peppered with hollers and bravos as the curtain calls built toward the principals. Mayes and Mack received their due, as did DeMain (and when he asked the orchestra to stand, a stage full of singers all stamped their feet in approbation), and then McIntyre. Finally we got Heggie and Sister Helen Prejean, with at least one “God bless you, Sister!” audible from the orchestra seats. And why not? Her work has touched thousands of lives over the last three decades, and now our city has been blessed in a very special way. If I were you, I would check this morning to see if any tickets remain for Sunday’s matinee. Skeptical? Walking to the car, an elderly gentleman said to me, “I thought, ‘Modern opera? I’ll leave at intermission.’ But I couldn’t leave, and I’m glad I stayed.” Exactly.

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About This Blog

Years before I contributed my first classical review to the Los Angeles Times in 1988, I started a class in music appreciation for adults that had one aim: to put a few cracks in the “ivory tower elitism” I found pervasive in the classical music world since my boyhood days. Whether as a critic, program annotator or band director, that goal has never changed. After all, Mozart and Beethoven and the gang wrote their music for people like you—not critics or professors!

After growing up in the suburbs of New York City, and spending twenty years in and around Los Angeles, the last twelve years here leave me more amazed than ever at the musical riches of Madison. I’m a cheerleader at heart, because I always think more people would become classical fans if they’d give it a chance—but I’m also quick to tell you when you’re not getting your money’s worth. Classically Speaking brings you as much news and as many reviews as possible, and I hope you’ll join me for a fabulous musical journey.

–  Greg Hettmansberger
Follow Greg on Twitter @ghettmansberger

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