But then came Dead Man Walking, very much alive and striding, not walking, onto the Lyric stage, as it did at its premiere on Nov. 2nd.
Not since Carlisle Floyd's Susannah received its first professional showing in 1956 has an American opera accrued such international currency: over 70 productions on five continents (Heggie's Moby-Dick is not far behind, giving him at least two big hits--unusual for any contemporary composer of operas). The original production of Dead Man Walking was created in a collaboration between several companies, including Cincinnati, where I saw it in 2002.
I was impressed with the opera then and remain so today; it is a stunning work. Like Susannah it has momentum, or I should say, propulsion. It never flags in interest, musically or dramatically. The orchestration, whether blaring or serene, is expert and the vocal line most grateful, a quality for which Hegie, composer of about 300 songs to date, is especially admired by singers.
Designed by Michael McGarty, the current production is likewise stunning. One might think that a work which takes place almost entirely within prison walls would be a bleak affair but the projections and lighting effects (credit Elaine J. McCarthy and Brian Nason respectively) made for a vivid experience.
Canadian Nicole Paiement, who has conducted this work before, made her Lyric debut. In the opening scenes balance between singers and pit were not fully adjusted in terms of audibility, but this was soon corrected as Paiement went on to lead the work excitingly to its thrilling conclusion.
There was not a weak link in the cast nor a false step in the staging of Leonard Foglia.We lived and breathed with the characters, sometimes uncomfortably so, as per the intention of Heggie and librettist Terrence McNally, based on the novel by Sister Helen Prejean (both she and Heggie attended the premiere, taking bows with the rest of the large cast).
Patricia Racette as Sister Helen sounded steadier than she has in recent seasons, and further demonstrated that contemporary roles are her forte. As always with her, whether in modern or classic works, she fully embodied her character, this time a troubled nun struggling to find compassion in the soul of a young man before he's executed for committing horrific crimes.
It would be hard to find sympathy for such a character but Ryan McKinny did just that, with a beautifully sung, convincingly acted, and ultimately remorseful, portrayal of Joseph De Rocher.
As his heartbroken mother, Susan Graham was unbearably moving in her totally believable depiction of grief. The soprano of Whitney Morrison, as Helen's companion, Sister Rose, soared splendidly amid the ensembles and blended beautifully in the duets.
The rest of the cast members are too numerous to be cited individually, but all were invariably fine, as were the choruses of Michael Black (adult) and Josephine Lee (children).--Richard Covello
Caption: Patricia Racette (Sister Helen Prejean) & Ryan McKinny (Joseph De Rocher) in Lyric Opera of Chicago's Dead Man Walking