Heggie’s Dead Man Walking triumphs at HGO

Staged by more than a handful of American companies since its 2000 premiere at
San Francisco Opera, Dead Man Walking has been seen in Dresden and
Vienna — and in distant Australia. It is the most popular of American
operas in decades — perhaps since Porgy and Bess. But that only states
the obvious.

More important is the universality the HGO staging brings to the true story
of Sister Helen Prejean’s encounter with death-row damned Joe De Rocher.
For here the work — and the bare-bones libretto by Terrence McNally — is
no longer an argument about capital punishment — if this ever was its
central concern. It is now rather an essay — a careful balance of ideas
and emotions — on the quest for compassion — and love — in a
world poor in compassion, chilled by loneliness and loathe to grant

HGO music director Patrick Summers conducted the SFO premiere of
DMW and has been with it constantly. In Houston he demonstrates how
much he has grown in a decade distinguished by further Heggie achievements.
Indeed, the Houston staging takes DMW full circle, underscoring a
network of friendships that reaches beyond the stage and contrasts warmly with
the lonely despair that darkens this story.

In addition to the long collaboration between Heggie and Summers, in the pit
for the Dallas premiere of the composer’s Moby Dick last season,
this staging gains through the return to the cast of Frederica von Stade who
— repeating her SFO role — sings Joe’s mother. Adding to the
weight of her still superb singing is the fact that Heggie has long prized the
mezzo as his personal Muse, together with that the tug at the heart prompted by
the knowledge that the HGO performances mark her last appearance on the opera

John Packard, the first Joe and now an internationally recognized baritone,
is now in Houston to sing his father. Older opera buffs are delighted to find
in the cast singers of note edged off stage by today’s quest for new

Cheryl Parrish, loved for many performances of Despina and Gilda, and
Suzanne Mentzer, only a decade ago a leading Octavian, sing supporting roles.
(Both are now voice teachers in Texas.) New to the cast — and the HGO
— is Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman, who makes Sister Rose an
alter ego of Sister Helen.

At the top of this list of notables, of course, is Joyce DiDonato as Sister
Helen. An alumna of the HGO studio, DiDonato, now the world’s leading
mezzo, has long been Houston’s “own.” Having appeared in a
wide variety of roles here, she has just been named the company’s Lynn
Wyatt Great Artist for 2011-12. (She will sing the title role in
Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda at the end of the next season.) DiDonato, who
sang the role at New York City Opera in 2002, is a vulnerably feminine Sister
Helen without the grit of Susan Graham who created the role at the SFO. By
internalizing the conflict, however, DiDonato brings new intensity to the
independent nun. She makes clear that Sister Helen gets more than she bargained
for in seeking to counsel Joe. DMW is, after all her opera
— her story and her journey. DiDonata makes her a delicately refined
woman who underscores how porous the boundary between eros and
agape is.

DMW_HGO_2011_02.gifJoyce DiDonato (Sister Helen Prejean) and Measha Brueggergosman (Sister Rose)

Philip Cutlip is an unrelentingly macho Joe — still obsessed by sex
— who makes Sister Helen’s mission doubly difficult.

Jake Heggie began his career as a composer of songs, and DMW
profits greatly from his understanding of the voice and his ability to set
words with transparent clarity. But, as Summers brings home, Heggie is also a
master of orchestration. There are interludes in this score that rival Bergs
Woyzeck in drama of hurricane force.Sixty years ago DMW would have
been taught in courses on Existentialism, for the story is as complex in sins
of omission as in their opposite.

And God? Despite Sister Helen’s frequent — and fervent —
prayers, Heggie and McNally leave that question to the audience, free to answer
it according to the degree of their belief. More significant perhaps is the
experience of “King” Elvis Pressley that Joe and Sister Helen share
and — recalled by both — leads to the breakthrough in their

While Dead Man Walking has grown in significance during its decade
of enviably popularity, the world — in the eyes of many — has gone
downhill. As chaos grows, a society largely with a moral compass and ethical
rudder seems doomed to produce more and more souls equal in loss to Joe De
Rocher, while the supply of Sister Helens diminishes.

This was brought home by the near-capacity audience in the Brown Theater in
Houston’s impressive Wortham Center on January 29. They were totally
— and actively — engaged in DMW. Indeed, one might speak
of a Jungian mystique of participation, something for which art strives, but
all too rarely achieves. (This was the second of five performances of the work
that began on January 22.)

DMW_HGO_2011_03.gifFrederica von Stade as Mrs. Patrick De Rocher

Although Jake Heggie, born in 1961, has done significant things during the
past decade, a direct line connects his two big — indeed, grand operas:
Dead Man Walking and Moby Dick, premiered by Dallas Opera
last April. In his overwhelmingly successful capturing of the epic sweep and
scope of one of the world’s major novels, Heggie makes clear that it is
time to liberate him from the “post-Sondheim” category and cherish
him as the equal of John Adams and Osvaldo Golijov, America’s two major
masters of opera. Heggie writes with a voice as original, powerful and
emotionally convincing as his slightly older contemporaries. The Houston Grand
Opera production of Dead Man Walking leaves no doubt about this.
Indeed, the staging of this now-classic work is a well-deserved celebration of
Jake Heggie’s stature and significance.

Wes Blomster

image_description=Philip Cutlip as Joseph De Rocher [Photo by Felix Sanchez courtesy of Houston Grand Opera]
product_title=Jake Heggie: Dead Man Walking
product_by=Sister Helen Prejean: Joyce DiDonato; Joseph De Rocher: Philip Cutlip; Joseph’s mother: Frederica von Stade; Sister Rose: Measha Brueggergosman; Owen and Kitty Hart, parents of murdered girl: John Packard and Cheryl Parrish; Jade Boucher, mother of murdered boy: Susanne Mentzer. Conductor: Patrick Summers. Director: Leonard Foglia. Sets: Michael McGarty. Costumes: Jess Goldstein. Lighting: Brian Nason. Chorus master: Richard Bado. A co-production with Opera Pacific, Cincinnati Opera, New York City Opera, Austin Lyric Opera, Michigan Opera Theatre, Pittsburgh Opera and Baltimore Opera.
product_id=Above: Philip Cutlip as Joseph De Rocher

All photos by Felix Sanchez courtesy of Houston Grand Opera