Approaching a new opera on CD
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois
I never go to an opera unprepared. I buy a CD, I listen to it over and over again, and study the libretto and the history of the piece and its composer. Operas, most of the time, speak for themselves by their very longevity - a reviewer, therefore, is relieved of judging the music and, instead, simply must judge its performance and the production. However, tomorrow night L'Opéra de Montréal is presenting Dead Man Walking by Jake Heggie (libretto by playwright Terrence McNally). This is a whole different ballgame for this city, as the piece is a mere 13 years old and is not, by any stretch, an integral part of the world operatic repertory despite having received over a dozen productions since it was created (which for a new work qualifies as incredibly successful).
This is an opera based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean about her relationship as spiritual adviser to condemned murderer Joseph De Rocher. (The book was also the source for the Susan Sarandon/Sean Penn movie.)
I am going to use this space to write of two things: the piece itself and a recording (Joyce di Donato and Philip Cutlip in the two leads, Philip Summers leading the orchestra of the Houston Grand Opera on Virgin Records). The latter is one of two recordings, both - oddly - taped live at performances.
Given my druthers I always prefer a studio recording to a live one (unless it was recorded at Bayreuth, a theatre with perfect acoustics and where audience members are shot if they cough). With this work - a difficult one with insanely uneven dynamics - studio would have been highly preferable (though the audience, for the most part, has clear lungs).
From the first moments you think this is going to be a very "tuneful" piece. It opens with a bit of honky-tonk (which introduces the life of the murderer) and, soon after, we get a bit of Southern-Baptist-like hymn-singing (introducing Prejean). I immediately thought, "I've heard this before!" as the works which inspired the music scream their presence: Gershwin's Porgy and Bess and Britten's Peter Grimes. Right down to the snare used to punctuate the modernity of the work to the wind-like presence of the choir with a crescendo torn from Grimes's storm to the Gospel of Bess's picnic to the rage at the murderer of the victims' families resembling the lynch mob in the Britten - the best of the two works are all there.
I am not saying plagiarism - just that lineage is clear and not a bad thing. What is troublesome, from Heggie (and for a newcomer to the piece), is his treatment of the dialogue. This is not, finally, a tuneful piece at all. It studiously avoids what one might call arias, with its sung dialogue not pausing nor, really, building towards anything but the end of a scene. This is the hallmark of the entire work. McNally's libretto is heart-breaking and Heggie may have been right to cede to it but there is an adamant lack of hooks or, even, motifs and by the end of the story's thorough unplesantness and Heggie's 150 minutes towards a brutal finish, a listener (let alone an audience) is thoroughly exhausted.
Yes, there is some gallows humour (you hear the audience laughing, almost in relief) but the virtual rapture of Prejean's beliefs juxtaposed to the violence of De Rocher, represented in the music (and in Di Donato's and Cutlip's magnificent voices) are the heart of the opera and its relentlessness.
So what makes for the opera's success, I wondered? The same thing, I believe, which made the movie so wondrous: religious belief (goodness) and how it grapples with evil is not only what Prejean's story is about, but also a question archi-present in all of our lives. De Rocher (like the Newtown or Columbine butchers) is human, after all. So Dead Man Walking, the opera, does the opposite of what one expects of opera - its simple plot leaves room for more literary and larger human themes and its music accommodates a very rich play instead of making it secondary.
One can debate what Wagner (and his modern directors) was up to in Tristan or The Ring for hours. But the very basic elements which make Dead Man Walking resonate may also signal another path the whole art can take away from Regietheatre.
Meanwhile: Dead Man Walking opens at the Opéra de Montréal tomorrow night and continues to March 16