Jake HEGGIE (b.1961)
Dead Man Walking - an opera in two acts (2000)
Joyce DiDonato (mezzo) - Sister Helen Prejean; Philip Cutlip (baritone) - Joseph de Rocher; Frederica von Stade (mezzo) - Mrs Patrick de Rocher; Measha Brueggergosman (soprano) - Sister Rose; Hector Vásquez (baritone) - George Benton; Beau Gibson (tenor) - Father Grenville; Cheryl Parrish (soprano) - Kitty Hart; John Packard (baritone) - Owen Hart; Susanne Mentzer (mezzo) - Jade Boucher; Jon Kolbet (tenor) - Howard Boucher; Michael Samuel (baritone) - Motorcycle cop; Kiri Deonarine (soprano) - Sister Catherine; Brittany Wheeler (mezzo) - Sister Lilliane; Michael Samuel and Boris Dyakov (baritones) - Prison guards; Austin Dean (tenor) - Older brother; Cullen King (treble) - Younger brother; Kathleen Manley - Mother; Laurelle Gowing - Mrs Charlton; Carey M O’Rarden; Bradley Blunt; Wesley Landry; James R Jennings; G Leslie Biffle; Rahki DeShon Marcelous (tenors and baritones) - Inmates; Nancy Hall (Paralegal)
Houston Grand Opera/Patrick Summers
rec. Houston Grand Opera, 24 January, 2 and 6 February 2011
VIRGIN CLASSICS 6024632 [77.27 + 64.25] 
Heggie’s first opera Dead Man Walking is one of the great operatic success stories of the current century. It was given its première in San Francisco in 2000, and since then has been performed in opera houses all over the world. Twenty-eight performances in eleven years are listed on the composer’s website, including productions in Dresden, Vienna, Copenhagen, Sydney and Dublin. As such it has probably made as much impact as Peter Grimes did in its first decade, and more than any other full-scale opera has since. That includes works like Nixon in China or Billy Budd, which may now be said to have entered the standard repertory but which took a longer period to do so. Dead Man Walking now receives its second recording - Grimes had to wait nearly fifteen years for its first - an earlier Erato release deriving from the San Francisco première now being no longer available although three extracts featuring Susan Graham (the original Sister Helen) are still to be found as part of a retrospective recital highlighting the singer’s achievements.
Now Patrick Summers, who conducted the San Francisco première, returns to the score with Houston Grand Opera and gives us a second reading of the score. He says in his booklet notes that he thinks that his performance has matured over the years; and the cast here also features two other performers who took part in the original performances, in the shape of Frederica von Stade, reprising her original role, and John Packard, switching from the part of convicted criminal Joseph de Rocher to that of the bereaved father Owen Hart.
We are immediately in familiar territory as the opera opens, as the meandering string lines remind us of Pimen in Boris Godunov chronicling the history of his times. The book by Sister Helen Prejean on which the opera is based is likewise based on real historical events, although some of the characters are based on combinations of several different real people. At times the vocal writing recalls Porgy and Bess - not so surprisingly. There are also hints of Britten, including a passage for the grieving mother which uncannily and rather uncomfortably recalls Mrs Herring from Albert Herring. What is far more important than these occasional echoes of earlier composers is the sheer emotional sweep of the music, and the manner in which Heggie - in his first opera! - manages to set the English language with a total commitment to the text and its subtle inflections.
The plot of the book - and the opera - is really very simple and straightforward. Sister Helen corresponds with and then meets a criminal sentenced to death for murder and attempted rape. She comes to realise a degree of sympathy both with the murderer and the families of his victims. At the same time the criminal - the ‘dead man walking’ of the title - comes to terms with his guilt for his crimes, so that when he is finally executed he has achieved a degree of personal redemption. The book is a heartfelt protest against the death penalty, but at the same time does not shirk the brutal reality of the crimes for which Joseph de Rocher is eventually executed. The balance is achieved by a degree of religious consolation, which could be mawkishly sentimental but comes across in the music as simply and totally heartfelt. There is a large cast, some of them merely spoken roles and some being totally silent. The CD booklet perversely gives us the names of these inaudible participants. The booklet does not help to distinguish individuals by not giving the voice ranges of the various characters. Those given above come from the Wikipedia article on the opera, with some minor adaptations where the role has been differently cast from the San Francisco première.
The main problem here is the lack of a text, although it is possible to keep general track of the action from the cued synopsis and a comprehensive track-listing. There is a different and in some places more detailed synopsis available on Wikipedia. The diction of the cast is generally as good as one might expect, the men generally coming across better than the women although the variable assumption of Louisiana accents sometimes obscures individual lines. It is apparent from the audience reaction that they are better able to appreciate the words than is possible here; at one point when Sister Helen makes a joke in her colloquy with the prison chaplain (she tells us immediately afterwards “that was a joke”) one cannot make out what that joke actually was, although the audience laughs - did they have surtitles provided? The absence of a text also leaves one occasionally mystified by some of the stage noises; exactly what is meant to be happening at the end of the First Scene of Act Two, or the beginning of the Fourth Scene of the same Act? The provided synopsis is silent on the point, and Wikipedia gives no assistance either. It is simply not good enough to assume that listeners to a CD recording of an opera will be intimately familiar with all the details of the stage action.
There is also a problem here with the recording. In a no doubt laudable attempt to keep as much of the dialogue as possible audible, the orchestra is very backwardly balanced and there are times, as at the end of the First Act, when one can hear that the orchestra is giving its all but one simply cannot hear it in a realistic perspective. From the extracts that are still available one can hear that the original San Francisco discs were generally more forwardly recorded, and the balance gave more orchestral detail.
The cast fielded in Houston is quite simply superb, certainly matching that given to Heggie by San Francisco at the world première. Joyce DiDonato is magnificent in the leading role, quite a match for Susan Graham in the earlier recording. It is not her fault that in some of the more lyrical passages her words are inevitably masked - although I note that Hubert Culot in his review of the San Francisco recording observed that there the words were clearly audible throughout. Philip Cutlip as the murderer is also excellent; his words are generally clear, and he has a somewhat lighter voice than John Packard who created the part - heard here in a deeper role than at the première, and very affectingly so in his aria of regret in the final Act. Measha Brueggergosman soars in her high soprano lines, although her words suffer worst from inaudibility. Frederica von Stade was here making her final stage appearance after a career spanning over forty years. She gives a heart-rending performance although her voice is not what it once was, even making allowances for her conscientious attempt to portray the emotions of the grief-stricken mother of one of the victims. She rises with great fervour to her final meeting with her son. One is grateful for the appearance of such an eminent artist as Susanne Mentzer in a comparatively small role, but truthfully there are no real weak links in the cast and everybody concerned gives of their not inconsiderable best. Members of the Houston Opera chorus are excellent in various small roles.
There is another parallel with Peter Grimes which should be noted. The central male characters in both operas meet their deaths to an extended passage of musical silence, here punctuated only by the sound of murderer’s heartbeat as he receives a lethal injection. This is a very dangerous dramatic device, but it works in both instances in a way that defies analysis or criticism. More problematic in both cases is the attempts that both composers make to ‘redeem’ their anti-heroes in the preceding scene. Britten gives his protagonist a protracted mad scene, but Heggie treads a more dangerous path as his murderer finally confesses his guilt and seeks religious consolation. This could potentially be sentimental, but he manages (just) to skirt the dangers. The effect is overwhelming thanks to superlative histrionic performances by DiDonato and Cutlip. The end really is a bit too abrupt; one could do with a more extended orchestral postlude to allow us to reflect on the message that the opera is conveying. We would welcome the composer’s own voice as part of that reflection.
Nonetheless this is a great opera, which everybody who is interested in the future of the medium should investigate. It is quite disgraceful that the Erato recording of the première is no longer available. It is of overwhelming importance as a historic document, quite apart from whatever other merits it might possess but this Houston performance makes a more than adequate substitute.  

Paul Corfield Godfrey 

One of the great operatic success stories of this century.