DiDonato gives her all in this finely executed performance.
It’s rare for an opera composed since the millennium to have enjoyed as many repeat performances as Dead Man Walking, and always with such stellar casting to boot. Composer Jake Heggie must be the envy of his operatic colleagues: his powerful tale of redemption, inspired by a true story, was championed by mezzo-sopranos Susan Graham and Frederica von Stade in 2000 for its world premiere (recorded live on Erato with the San Francisco Opera), and Teddy Tahu Rhodes played the condemned killer Joseph de Rocher in the first Australian performances). Now, for Houston Grand Opera, leading American mezzo Joyce DiDonato has taken on the demanding role of Sister Helen Prejean, the real-life crusader for death-row inmates on whose book the opera is based.
For a work in which the protagonist is a woman of the cloth, the libretto by Terrence McNally manages to steer clear of “preaching”. The controversial issue of capital punishment is given a fair hearing from the different perspectives of people whose lives have been torn apart by a brutal rape and double murder. In one of the most moving scenes in Act 1, reprising her role as Mrs De Rocher, von Stade sings with rich-hued dignity as she pleas for her son’s life even in the face of grief-stricken outbursts from the father of Joseph’s young victim.
It’s not all so grim; there is plenty of colour and humour to add still more depth and realism (“Show some respect… She’s a fucking nun!”). DiDonato brings these moments to life with her natural, disarming warmth and those flexible vocal cords, bonding with her inmate over the Elvis songs Hound Dog and, of course, Jailhouse Rock. She really gets inside Sister Helen’s moral dilemma and the internal struggle not to pass judgment on the “monster” she is trying to save. Her scenes with De Rocher (robust-voiced baritone Philip Cutlip) are by turns electric and tender as she builds trust in their relationship, urging him to confess his sins and unburden his soul. And it is for DiDonato’s thrilling high A’s alone that I would opt for this disc over the premiere recording.
The Houston chorus is one of the stars of this production, particularly in the Billy Budd-like, all-male, almost animalistic moaning and its bleak Our Father prayer. Heggie’s lyrical but highly charged score is conducted to taut perfection by Patrick Summers, who was also at the podium for the world premiere.
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