By Michael J. Davis
Dead Man Walking has skyrocketed composer Jake Heggie to a position as the most prominent operatic composer of the 21st century. This powerhouse opera, debuted in San Francisco in 2000, is a true story that chronicles Joseph de Rocher, a convicted murderer, on his journey towards death by lethal injection at Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana. Just as much, it tells the story of Sister Helen Prejean, whose memoir inspired both the opera and the 1995 blockbuster of the same name. Sister Helen has been asked to be Joseph’s spiritual advisor, and her struggle to forgive this murderer and guide him to a peaceful passing give the opera a light that is necessary to balance out the profound darkness of the subject matter. The opera leaves you emotionally wrought: it tears your heart to pieces, but somehow leaves you feeling uplifted and more human than before the curtain went up.
Northwestern University’s production was stunningly executed in all aspects – especially when considering that this is a nonprofessional production. The first scene acts as a jarring prologue: in it we witness the brutal rape and murder of two young teens. From the stunned silence that follows Sister Helen sings the first strains of the spiritual “He Will Gather Us Around.” This melody weaves into the texture throughout the opera to balance the most macabre moments with a melancholic beauty. Even in the confines of Northwestern’s outdated and worn Cahn Auditorium, stage director Michael M. Ehrman’s set transports you to the dank confines of Angola with its layers of jail bars, rusted tin, and chain link. Even in its minimalism, the ether of death row is easily palpable. The chorus of convicts add the frenetic chaos of death row to the sonic atmosphere.
Baritone Alexander York, gives his performance as De Rocher a frightening edge, while maintaining a free and expressive vocal tone. As the show progresses, that edge slowly wears away to show glimpses of the frightened man underneath: glimpses of his guilt and of his shame. His portrayal lent the production much of its darkness, but also much of its poignancy. The scene in which De Roucher finally admits to his terrible deeds reveals a distraught boy, who has made a horrible drug-induced decision, and who must now pay the ultimate price. York toes this line between hardened criminal and scared boy with surprising agility.
Quinn Middleman, as Sister Helen, is simply magnificent. She acts with a fire whose intensity is unmatched in the show. Her doubt and confusion, coupled with her steely resolve to fulfill her duty, give her portrayal of Prejean a 3-dimensional quality that allows the audience to join her on her journey to forgiveness. Without this, the show would falter. Throughout the show she reaches out to De Roucher emotionally many times, but never physically. Because of this her most powerful moment comes in the final scene, after Joe’s death, where she finally gathers the strength to touch the condemned man, singing the same a capella spiritual that began the show as the curtain falls.
Mezzo Stephanie Feigenbaum gives a stand out performance as Mrs. De Roucher, Joseph’s Mother. In her act one aria, she pleads for her son’s life to the parole board, pouring a mother’s grief onto the stage with such gut-wrenching conviction that it leaves the audience sobbing. Her final farewell to her ill-fated son similarly rips your heart out: after taking a final family portrait, she insists on no goodbyes and only smiles, recalling her boy as the innocent child he once was. Only when her poor Joe gets dragged out does she lose herself, gutturally screaming after him “JOEY!” then exasperatedly whispering, “I just wanted to see his face one more time.” Even recalling it brings chills to the spine.
Kyle Sackett, Regina Ceragioli, Michael Powell, and Chelsea Betz lend gravity as the parents of the deceased teens. The sextet towards the end of act one, “You don’t know what it’s like…” with the parents of the deceased, Sister Helen, and Mrs. De Roucher illuminates the emotional struggle of everyone effected by this horrible crime. The parents sing of their last words to their children: “comb your hair,” “fix your blouse,” “clean your room,” “shut the door.” Simultaneously, Mrs. De Roucher sings of her guilt for not bringing her boy up right, and Prejean just keeps apologizing for the way things are.
The Northwestern University Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Michael Sakir, brings Heggie’s modern yet pleasingly melodic score to life. The orchestra is supplely lead, although there are moment’s where the orchestra overpowers the singers. This may be due to the acoustics of the space, but it also speaks to the young conductors inexperience.
With the professional level of execution in this production, Northwestern University’s Opera department has solidified its place at the forefront of operatic training. Any money spent on a ticket to their productions will be money well spent.