Jake Hegee’s first (of 10) operas opened the Metropolitan Opera’s 2023-24 season tonight. It was the first time the company presented the opera which has had numerous stagings worldwide. The performance was broadcast over the Met’s Sirius channel. It will open the season’s HD series on Oct 21.
Dead Man Walking started as a memoir by Sister Helen Prejean who is a noted opponent of the death penalty. The book was made into a movie in 1995. The opera debuted in 2000. The opera doesn’t focus on the morality or lack thereof of the death penalty, rather it is about redemption. The story’s murderer Joseph De Rocher is both a rapist and a murderer who eventually finds spiritual love with the nun which she returns. It’s hard to get emotionally involved with such a malignant protagonist. Even Wagner would have had difficulty engaging the audience’s sympathy with such a creep. I don’t understand the attraction of this guy’s story. I can force myself to understand how someone like Sister Helen could forgive him, but love him. That’s an emotion too far.
I’ll just make a few comments about the opera as I just listened to it for the first time. I’ll wait for a full review until the HD performance next month. Hegee is a very proficient composer with great technical skill. Most of the interest in his score is in the orchestra which continually comments with force and insight on the onstage action. The solo vocal lines are parlando which would be empty without the orchestra. His ensembles are much better constructed. In fact, the musical interest is directly proportional to the number of singers employed.
The opera’s pillar is Sister Helen Prejean who was portrayed by Joyce DiDonato. I’ll have to wait until next month to comment on her stage presence. Vocally, she seemed the weakest member of the cast. Her sound was hollow and insecure. Hegee’s score does not require extraordinary resources from any of the singers, so Ms DiDonato’s insecurity in a role she has sung frequently was surprising. The rest of the cast, especially Ryan McKinny as Joe, Susan Graham as Joe’s mother, and Latonia Moore as Sister Rose were on the mark.
The star of the performance was the Met’s orchestra under the baton of its music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin. The players hurled Hegee’s sonic thunderbolts with power and when required finesse. The brilliant playing by the band was reason enough to attend a performance of the opera. An audio stream cannot do justice to this score. It is best experienced live or at least with a high frequency signal powered into a broadband speaker.
More on the opera next month.