> HEGGIE Dead Man Walking [HC]: Classical CD Reviews- Aug 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Jake HEGGIE (born 1961)
Dead Man Walking (2000)
Susan Graham (mezzo-soprano), Sister Helen Prejean; John Packard (baritone), Joseph De Rocher; Frederica von Stade (mezzo-soprano), Mrs Patrick De Rocher; Theresa Hamm-Smith (soprano), Sister Rose; San Francisco Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Patrick Summers
Recorded: (live) War Memorial Hall Opera House, San Francisco, October 2000
ERATO 86238-2 [78:06 + 67:57]


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Jake Heggie has already composed several vocal works for celebrated American singers such as Susan Graham, Frederica von Stade, Renée Fleming and Dawn Upshaw, but Dead Man Walking is his first – and probably not his last – foray into the operatic field.

Terence McNally’s libretto is based on Sister Helen Prejean’s eponymous best selling book in which she tells of her own experience as spiritual adviser to many Death Row prisoners. Actually Joseph De Rocher is a fictional character drawn from several prisoners she has approached. As Martin Kettle rightly observes in the booklet notes, the main idea of the opera is that of redemption rather than an ‘anti-death penalty’ pamphlet. The subject matter here is guilt and redemption. This however does not exclude secondary topics such as the pain suffered by the victims’ families and by the murderer’s family. From the purely dramatic point of view, the libretto is fairly successful, though at times a bit verbose; but it is quite efficient in blending humour and seriousness, joy and pain. Moreover it is cleverly conceived in that it provides most main characters with some big aria and also allows for some gripping and emotionally tense ensembles, such as the nightmarish last scene of Act 1 in which Sister Helen is assaulted by reminiscences from earlier scenes. Also notable is the big ensemble preceding the entirely silent execution scene at the end of Act 2.

Musically speaking, Heggie’s score is quite effective and overly eclectic with some well-behaved present-day Americana and drawing on several influences such as Copland and Britten. As such it is superbly written (the writing for voices is particularly successful) and Heggie’s expert scoring renders the words are really clearly audible throughout.

Though Susan Graham, Frederica von Stade and John Packard clearly steal the show as the main characters, the whole cast sings and acts with conviction; and the audience’s silence during the most intense moments is a deserved tribute to the cast’s commitment. (Mark you, the audience also wholeheartedly responds to the opera’s lighter or humorous moments as well.)

Heggie’s Dead Man Walking may not be a late 20th Century Wozzeck or From the House of the Dead; but it definitely is a dramatically gripping work likely to appeal to large and varied audiences without ever writing down to them.

Much as I appreciate the overall quality of the work and the production of this recording, I cannot help but think that there are many more worthwhile operas to commit to disc before devoting so much care and expense on worthy, though inevitably lightweight pieces such as this one, especially when the record industry at large laments its limited returns. Dead Man Walking, dealing with a highly sensitive topics in the States, is likely to attract many future local (as well as international) productions. This should ensure further sales of the recording.

I do not want to diminish the impact of the work as a whole and of its well crafted music in particular, both of which are well worth the occasional hearing. I only wish that potential listeners will then be enticed to listen to some of the great operas of the 20th Century. Should this happen, then the present release would have been more than successful.

Hubert Culot

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