WNO’s Freedom season, bringing to the stage a range of different works all focussing on human rights, opens on an emotional note with Dead Man Walking, an opera with music by Jake Heggie and a libretto by Terrence McNally, based on the homonymous book written by Sister Helen Prejean and inspired by her real-life experience working with convicts on Death Row in Louisiana. As far from British culture as the death penalty might sound nowadays, it is a somber reminder that it was only abolished in the UK in relatively recent times, with the last death sentence in the country passed, though not carried out, as late as 1973. With the USA still prominent in carrying out one of the highest rates of capital penalties in the world, and the spectre of the death sentence still evoked here and there in political debate, the topic still holds great relevance, as well as a heavy emotional charge. This production makes the wise choice of going straight to the book, rather than relying on the well-known film drawn from it; in fact, the authors collaborated directly with Sister Helen, whose note in the programme illuminates some parts of the process of creating it. The work is all the more urgent and visceral from it, unpacking the complex ethical conundrum faced by its characters – and, through them, its audience – in a far deeper and more complex way than its cinema counterpart did.
I have always had a certain degree of skepticism on the viability of contemporary operas depicting contemporary narration; by its own history as an art form, opera is heavily linked to a specific historical moment and a specific kind of stories, and there is always something that feels forced and strained in works that roam outside of those constraints. This is also true ofDead Man Walking, especially in the many sections that are heavy on recitatives, and can feel like its characters are painfully striving not to just fall into plain acting. One strength of this work, however, lies in its clear awareness of this issue: rather than attempting the impossible task of avoiding it, it capitalises on it, using it as a tool to convey the feeling of tension, awkwardness and unpleasantness that pervades the entire narration. It’s a perfect mood for the courtroom and the prison, and the impact of the opera on the audience is the greater for it. It sets a baseline feeling that is then fully exploited by the incredibly powerful choral sections, by far the strongest in the whole work and the most emotional: at the end of the first half Death Row becomes almost a rung of Dante-like Hell as the entire cast comes together at one of the most tragic and complex points of the story, and the last walk to the death chamber in the second half is poignant and intense, and incredibly difficult to watch. The moment at the pardon hearing when Sister Helen, played with empathy and grace by Lucia Cervoni, is split between the rising emotions of the families of both victims and convict, and has to face her own moral questions without finding any answers, is also a well-conceived, seamlessly executed scene, which delivers a hefty punch without any trace of preachiness.
A series of convincing, rounded interpretations aids this work in delivering a story that is not stripped down of any of its complexities, and therefore hard to represent and hard to process. The choir of the convicts, for the most part relegated behind mesh screens at the back, is an imposing presence that is never forgotten, even when they’re silent. Aside from Cervoni, the performance of Morgan Smith must be mentioned, landing the convict Joseph De Rocher a solid, aggressive presence through the cracks of which a deeply damaged, heartfelt human side emerges in his moments of vulnerability. Perhaps the most touching performance, however, comes from Anne Mason as the convict’s mother: a delivery that is in turn frail and determined, emotional and distraught, and that is sure to draw more than one tear from the audience.
Heggie’s score works cleverly in drawing from opera stylemes to lend heftiness to the core moments of the story, while borrowing chords here and there from blues, gospel and spirituals in a way that is subtle and effective in evoking the backdrop of Louisiana. The result is an opera that feels genuinely American and genuinely contemporary, urgent and relevant in its weaknesses and tensions, and truly human in the struggle of its characters and the compassion of its narration.