The Met’s first HD telecast of this season ended with a whimper – actually a dead screen and no sound. The transmission stopped when the murderer De Rocher was strapped to a gurney and was being executed. After that nothing. No reprise of the hymn-like song sung by Sister Helen, no applause, no curtain calls, no credits. Satellite transmissions are routine these days, but the Met has not yet mastered the process. As far back as 2014, the Met lost Werther’s death scene due to a similar mishap.
So how was the show before the death of the death scene? Dead Man Walking, Jake Heggie’s first attempt at opera based on Sister Helen Prejean’s book has been his most successful of 10 so far. It’s been performed worldwide in the 20 plus years since its premiere. The work is more like a play with incidental music than an opera. There are almost no tunes and much of the words are spoken rather than sung. The only true operatic moment is at the start of the execution when the Lord’s Prayer is set to a large ensemble. The vocal writing here is first rate. Alas, it’s not duplicated. The piece works because the drama is interesting and the orchestral writing brilliant.
Ivo van Hove’s production uses a large open space with plain walls. Props and furniture are moved in and out in requirement of the action. There are video projections of most of the key characters. There are videographers onstage for much of the show. They were not too distracting on the telecast because Gary Halvorson’s ultra closeups kept them from view. How the in-house audience found them is obviously not known to me. From the perspective of a viewer of the telecast, the production worked very well.
The singers were all at least good. The two outstanding performances were those of Ryan McKinny as the ambulatory corpse and Susan Graham as his mother who refuses to accept his guilt as the rapist and murderer of a teenage girl.
McKinny’s singing and acting were on the mark throughout the show. Most remarkable were the 30 or more pushups he did, including some handclaps push-ups, while simultaneously singing. He’s the most buff opera singer I’ve ever seen.
Graham, who was Sister Helen in the first performance of this work, was affecting and convincing as a mother who loves her son no matter how awful he is – not an unusual phenomenon. A great artist still able to do fine work even though well into her sixties.
Joyce DiDonato seemed a bit uninvolved in her portrayal of the nun intimately concerned with the fate of a murderer on death row. Her voice was somewhat hollow and now has a tendency to wobble when under even moderate stress.
Another fine performance was that of veteran Rod Gilfry as the father of the murdered girl. Latonia Moore was vocally outstanding as Sister Rose, though she was not a convincing nun.
As I mentioned above, the orchestra is the star of this show. Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin had the Met’s great orchestra in their finest form. He got a thrilling and incisive sound from his virtuoso players. Always displaying a pixie-like persona, he seems to be aiming at Leprechaun of the Decade award given his increasingly eccentric physical presentation. Today he conducted in a short-sleeved fishnet shirt with along with his dyed blonde hair (what little remains) and painted fingernails placing him in the lead for the award. An amazingly gifted conductor with a unique sartorial flair.
A few words about the story. It’s about redemption. It is in many ways a political piece in that it will appeal to those who are more concerned with the rights and feelings of criminals than those of their victims. You can see this spirit on display virtually every day in the enlightened countries of the West. There are those who think that some things are beyond redemption and that only God can forgive them. The libretto actually says this but the action belies the statement.
Regardless of where one stands on the issues of redemption and forgiveness, Dead Man Walking is a fine piece of theater. Its long-lasting success as an opera is in my mind doubtful. Worth seeing the encore presentation if you missed the live telecast. I hope the replay will include the entire show.