Serious Praise for Dead Man Walking

The casual opera-goer (like myself) tends to associate its content with light-hearted fluff, like Mozart’s The Magic Flute or Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, the opera buffa most commonly performed. Even work dealing with more serious subject matter, opera seria, such as Donizetti’s Luchia di Lammermoor or Puccini’s Madame Butterfly distance themselves in terms of space and time from their audiences.

Not so with Dead Man Walking. Right from the start the dress rehearsal of its Twin Cities premiere at the Ordway Theatre grabbed the audience by the throat with its grisly and horrifying reenactment of twin murders and never let up. But its intensity derives not from whether the murderer, John De Rocher, will have justice served upon him, but whether he and his chosen confidante, Sister Helen Prejean, will have the strength to guide one another to redemption.

Though the story grinds through the machinations of the Louisiana state criminal justice system, the appeals on his behalf serve as a backdrop for an examination of De Rocher’s sense of guilt and possible expiation. Sister Helen must bear her own cross as the woman who has promised to share the horror of the condemned man’s experience to its terrifying, lonely end on the executioner’s table.

Both leads provide gut-wrenching performances. Seth Carico as De Rocher makes the condemned man’s resolute maintenance of innocence to disguise his fear of dying almost palpable. Catherine Martin as Sister Helen has the more difficult task of assuaging De Rocher’s fears while guiding him to the peace and courage that acknowledging his culpability might bring. Both of them pull off the difficult trick of letting the tenor in their singing convince the audience of their characters’ emotional and moral transformations.

Special note must be given to Emily Pulley as De Rocher’s mother. Her performance sets the tone of unstinting love and forgiveness that we sometimes witness in televised criminal trials but seldom share. Karen Slack as Sister Rose, Benjamin Sieverding as warden George Benton, Dennis Petersen as the sanctimonious Father Grenville, and the other cast members contribute fine, individualized performances which reflect the gamut of local social consciousness and moral outrage.

Some contemporary operas might examine the themes of love and hate, fear and longing, or hope and redemption; few make you experience them. Terence McNally (lyrics) and Jake Heggie’s (music) opera accomplishes that. If you enjoy serious opera and have a chance to see it (Tickets available for January 27-28, 30, and February 1, 3), do so. You’ll never regret it.

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