HEGGIE Dead Man Walking · Patrick Summers (cond); Susan Graham (Sister Helen Prejean); John Packard (Joseph De Rocher); Frederica von Stade (Mrs. Patrick De Rocher); Orchestra and Choruses of the San Francisco Opera · ERATO 86238-2 (2 CDs: 2:26; Live Perf: Oct., 2000)
This highly touted opera, whose auspicious San Francisco premiere and attendant publicity have led to the scheduling of numerous subsequent productions around the country, is representative of a fascinating phenomenon that has been making a significant impact on the world of opera for several years now. In fact, this phenomenon is a good deal more fascinating than the opera itself. Perhaps the first step was John Adams’s Nixon in China, whose remarkable popularity suggested the marketing value of embracing topical material as subject matter on which to build an opera. Then there is the highly successful—and justly so—application of super-titles, which render the libretto fully accessible to the audience. The significance of this innovation cannot be overestimated: Not only does it lessen the need for a grossly exaggerated style of acting that has alienated many potential audience-members, but it also elevates the relative importance of the libretto—typically relegated derisively to subordinate status—in the opera-impact equation. This has begun to make the libretto a creative artistic medium for serious writers, rather than merely a utilitarian device crafted by a journeyman functionary as a structure on which to drape a series of arias. Perhaps the third factor is the liberation of musical style from the modernist straitjacket of atonal declamation, making it acceptable to incorporate not only traditional tonal melody, but also non-traditional tonal melody (as in Adams’s operas), elements of rock/pop music, folk/ethnic music, etc. This is all to the good, right? Well, maybe—I’m not so sure. Look—I’d be the first person to complain about the endless rehashing of the s.o.s; and the first person to rejoice over the liberation of musical style, and to welcome an influx of newcomers into the operatic audience. But there is one big problem with this new phenomenon: An opera no longer needs really good music to make it big. If it has provocative or appealing subject matter, a well-written libretto, and music that is, well, inoffensive, let’s say, no one even seems to notice anything missing.
A case in point: The opera Dead Man Walking is based on a book by Sister Helen Prejean, which had already been adapted into an Academy Award-winning movie (in case you’re from another planet) starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. The book depicts the quasi-true story of a brutal, unrepentant murderer on death row in a Louisiana penitentiary, and the nun who befriends him and attempts to lead him toward some degree of redemption by showing him the love she believes is due all children of God. The idea of an operatic adaptation came from the distinguished playwright Terrence McNally, who also happens to be an opera buff, and was eager to write the libretto. Composer Jake Heggie was born in Florida in 1961, and grew up in Ohio, studying at UCLA with Paul Des Marais and David Raksin. During the 1980s he toured as a duo-pianist with Johana Harris (Mrs. Roy). As a composer he has concentrated on vocal music, having written more than 150 songs, which have been championed by a number of today’s most celebrated opera stars, most notably Frederica von Stade. Commissioned by the San Francisco Opera, Dead Man Walking is his first effort in the genre. Its October, 2000 premiere was a great success, its power as music-drama inviting comparison with West Side Story.
So what do we have here? The story is certainly a powerful one, and its operatic depiction makes no concessions to fragile sensibilities. Concerned not to be a simplistic, sentimental tract against capital punishment, the excellent libretto portrays Joseph De Rocher—the murderer—in all his vicious brutality, while validating the quest of the bereaved parents of the victims to find some sense of closure, if not justice. Their feelings balance Sister Helen’s mission of compassion and the pleas of De Rocher’s mother for clemency. Sister Helen conveys her horror and revulsion at De Rocher’s crime, while refusing to hate him as a person. It is the validity of these feelings and positions in simultaneous conflict that lends the work its power. The musical language that Heggie has adopted is rooted in tonal neo-romanticism, with coloration drawn from a gospel-spiritual-blues vein. But the actual music through which he depicts the story rarely rises to the emotional heights demanded by that story. There are some exceptions: The orchestral Prelude and the Prologue that follows, which accompanies a silent enactment of the crime, are gripping and create high expectations. Sister Helen’s aria in Act I, Scene 2, as she drives toward the prison, is quite moving. The sextet in Act I, Scene 8, featuring the parents of the victims, Sister Helen, and de Rocher’s mother, is fairly impressive. The soliloquy in Act II, Scene 4, when Sister Helen, wonders, “Who will walk with me?” tugs at the heart. But this is very little, relative to the whole—a whole that is packed with opportunities for the most intense musical expression: De Rocher’s mother, pleading for clemency; Sister Helen’s attempts to reach De Rocher, to open his heart enough for him to admit his guilt; the last confrontation between De Rocher and his mother; the scene in which De Rocher finally confesses; his actual execution. These are moments that a real opera composer would relish, but here they are all missed opportunities. Those involved with the creation of Dead Man Walking speak of a hope that the work will be a vehicle through which the audience might undergo a spiritually transforming experience. Such an admirable intention requires a work of sufficient communicative power that the listener can lose himself enough to become fully enveloped emotionally, carried away as an ocean wave carries a swimmer. But Heggie’s bland, pedestrian music shuffles along, rarely if ever taking flight in this way. Comparable in its emotional power to West Side Story?Someone’s got to be kidding! Let’s make a more modest comparison: Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah—an opera set in the South among poor folk, which adopts a neo-romantic musical language tinged with gospel hymns, and a story with broader moral reverberations. Susannah can provide a transforming experience because Floyd’s music has real lyrical loft, and a sense of artistic sincerity. I am not suggesting that Heggie has perpetrated an act of intentional fraudulence; but I do have the vague sense that some people are exaggerating something for the purpose of exploiting a situation.
Lest I seem unduly harsh in this review, let me add that Mr. Heggie is a “hot property” right now, with many new projects on the way, and I don’t expect my little commentary to alter that in any way. In preparation for this review, a casual search for background information on the internet produced hundreds of references to this composer and his opera, most of it pure hype, fluff, and puffery—advertising, rather than information. There is something about the commingling of art and commerce here that smells bad. Nothing pleases me more than the legitimate success of a new musical work. But that is different from trying to make something out of nothing.