Dead Man Walking
opens with a brutal rape-murder scene and ends with a passage, silent except for the clicks of the machine delivering fluids that execute a condemned man, followed by Susan Graham intoning the spiritual "He will gather us around." Those searing scenes flank that rarity, a contemporary opera that deals with an important issue--the death penalty--with balance and empathy while sustaining dramatic tension, the narrative conveyed with musical alertness. Small wonder that the opera has been so successful. It's based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean
and the acclaimed Tim Robbins film
made from it about a nun who befriends a condemned man and brings him to face the redemptive truth of his actions. The recording was made during the San Francisco premiere of the opera and has all the intensity of a live performance, in addition to the overwhelming power of the story and the music.
It would be hard to imagine a better performance, too. Susan Graham is perfect as Sister Helen, singing with purity of tone and fiery passion. She's delightful, too, in the humorous bits that leaven what would otherwise be a story too harrowing for the medium. Frederica von Stade, as the murderer's mother, is as good, and baritone John Packard as the condemned man is a real find--a singing actor totally convincing throughout, both as the hardened killer and later as the repentant man finally accepting responsibility for his deeds. The supporting cast is also first-rate, and Patrick Summers conducts with unerring sweep and fervor. Jake Heggie's score may lack hummable arias (other than the traditional hymn that plays so important a part throughout), but the orchestration is fresh, the vocal lines are grateful, and the range is wide, moving seamlessly from modern romanticism to bits of pop and rock. No small part of the opera's success is due to Terrence McNally's dramatically cohesive libretto. A triumph for all concerned. --Dan Davis