Tuesday, March 14, 2017

WNO's Dead Man Walking

On Saturday evening I witnessed an execution by lethal injection. OK, it wasn't a real execution, but an operatic one, terrifying nonetheless. A nervous but defiant "convict" stood center stage in a pair of underpants with a clearly visible diaper stuffed inside. His fear was palpable, his desperation permeated the theater as they dressed him in a white shirt and pants and strapped him to a gurney.  A nurse injected deadly substance into his arm. The audience stopped breathing.  Then his heartbeat, ticked off by a monitoring machine, began to slow down until it became a steady sound signaling death.   

The performance was Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking, offered for the first time by the Washington National Opera. I am somewhat familiar with the work through a recording of the 2000 San Francisco production, but it did not prepare me for the impact this opera can have in a staged performance. Staggering!

Contemporary operas can be quite an ordeal to sit through. Composers are pressured to offer some new and groundbreaking concept, which usually means hard-to-like music, black-and-white scenography, and absolute absence of tradition. Melody is anathema. I came to Dead Man Walking almost directly from a performance of La Ciudad de las Mentiras (City of Lies) an opera by Elena Mendoza at Teatro Real in Madrid, which bore all these characteristics.

Stage set for La Ciudad de las Mentiras, Teatro Real, Madrid
Mendoza used four stories by Juan Carlos Onetti to explore theatrical and perhaps some musical possibilities, but her sopranos, tenors and baritones never sang. They recited lines from the stories so intertwined that only those familiar with Onetti's work could hope to understand what's going on. The English language surtitles kept the uninitiated out of a complete fog, and a written introduction gave some clarification, but I had to agree with a friend who argued that a work of art that needs so much explanation is not a good work of art. If Mendoza's singers did not sing, neither did the musicians played much music. At one point a man appeared on the stage with an accordion only to tap his hand on it a couple of times. An actor portraying a bartender scratched a metal tray with a knife, a piano player hit the keyboard a couple of times and the orchestra produced some "atmospheric" sound, sort of like a distant wind howling. Overall, it was an interesting, innovative stage production, but it was not an opera.

Dead Man Walking definitely is. Heggie did not veer off the traditional operatic structure, or as some would say formula, proving that what worked for Verdi and Puccini works for today's composers as well. The build-up, the drama, the climax - it was all there and it worked. It opens with a young couple frolicking by the lake to the sound of popular music, but disaster is already in the air. And it strikes swiftly. From then on the action moves energetically forward so the first act breezes through without any longueurs. Sister Helen's entry into the death row, with a chorus of men yelling profanities at her is a most powerful scene, musically and theatrically.

The second act starts with the title character, prisoner Joseph de Rocher, exercising in his cell to pass the time or to keep his muscles from trembling.  A great opening!  After that the energy drops and there are scenes, such as Sister Helen's conversation with Sister Rose, and her encounter with the convict's mother that one could do without. Tension returns to the stage full force with re-entry into Joseph's prison cell. He knows the hour of death is approaching and his desperation rises to a fever pitch.  Still defiant, but more dependent on Sister Helen's support, he finally feels compelled to confess his guilt. 


The death scene is one of the most powerful pieces of theater I've seen in recent years. I wish the opera ended right there. The final repeat of a religious song that served as a leitmotif throughout the opera was forgettable and unnecessary. In spite of minor quibbles (occasional clichés of sorrow and sentimentality) chapeau to Heggie and his librettist Terrence McNally for impressive work.

Kate Lindsey and Michael Mayes in WNO's Daed Man Walkong, photo Scott Suchman
In terms of production, this was one of the operas in which a simple, mostly black stage for once worked very well. The black scrim was lifted often enough to break the monotony and create a sense of movement. I usually don't pay much attention to lighting, but this time I thought it played a significant role in creating the right mood at the right time, whether it was camaraderie, anger, children's lightheartedness or dark depths of a tortured soul. Francesca Zambello, riding the wave of her recent success with Wagner's Ring, proved once again that she is an operatic force to be reckoned with.

Heggie's music is unapologetically beautiful throughout this opera, something that the audience loves and music critics condemn. 
It is the only modern opera I know in which the recitatives sound as good as the "arias" and blend seamlessly together. Dead Man Walking is unmistakingly American in the theme, language, and music expression. At times it sounds more like a musical than opera. But other than that, it was a classical opera in almost every sense. 

The singing and acting on Saturday were excellent throughout. In terms of voices, I would wish a stronger mezzo for the role of Sister Helen than the otherwise brilliant Kate Lindsey. Also, I am not sure if it was a good idea to cast Susan Graham next to her in a minor role. Graham reminded those familiar with the San Francisco recording of her outstanding interpretation of Sister Helen, and she overpowered Lindsey when they appeared together. Lindsey's Sister Helen was a gentle nun, different from the real life person the character was based on.  But such people can wield a power of their own quiet kind and so Lindsey's interpretation worked well, especially juxtaposed with Joseph's belligerence.

Dead Man Walking is one of the most frequently performed American operas at home and abroad, for a good reason. It is one of those works that makes you want to see it again in the same or a different production. Unlike Ciudad de las Mentiras, for example. It's an opera that you can just listen to without seeing it on stage, like La Forza del Destino or Porgy and Bess. If it does not break any new grounds, perhaps it proves that there is no need to keep fixing something that ain't broke. It's a pity WNO offered only four performances of what is arguably its most impressive production of the season, but I feel lucky that I caught the last one.

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