‘Dead Man Walking:’ Potency Registers In A Stark Revival

Jamie Barton as Sister Helen Prejean and Michael Mayes as Joseph de Rocher in ‘Dead Man Walking’ in Atlanta.
(Photos by Tom Grosscup)
By Michael Huebner

ATLANTA – From its San Francisco premiere in 2000 to the end of this year, Dead Man Walking will have chalked up 70 productions on five continents, a rarity for a contemporary opera. The latest production by Atlanta Opera, which opened Feb. 2, revealed how composer Jake Heggie and librettist Terrence McNally have assured its staying power: They allow a true story to unfold with grit and fervor in an easily digestible musical language, and never let the drama subside.

Sister Helen (Barton, center) faces family members of victims.

A tried and true opera paradigm, to be sure. But given the story’s metamorphosis from best-selling book to movie, opera, and stage play, Sister Helen Prejean’s real-life account of love, loss, and redemption in a Louisiana prison has given Dead Man Walking a timeless quality that transcends these art forms and speaks directly to hearts, minds, and politics. 

“Art is truth,” declared Prejean during a pre-performance lecture with Heggie at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, north of Atlanta. “It brings people squarely together from both sides.” Heggie responded with an unapologetic reference to his own neo-romantic musical language: “I love themes that people can recognize – a character, an event, leitmotifs. Our goal was to tell a story using everything opera can do — choruses, ensembles, all the things we love about this art form.”

With Dead Man Walking, Heggie makes a convincing argument for his conventional appproach. Quietly ominous minor-key strains in the Prologue morph into rock music and a scene of sexual violence that would make Don Giovanni cringe. From behind a scrim emerges the angelic voice of Sister Helen singing a hymn. Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, an Atlanta native, portrays the nun who becomes the spiritual adviser of convicted murderer Joseph de Rocher, awaiting execution at Angola State Penitentiary.

It should be noted that de Rocher is a fictitious character drawn from Prejean’s experiences advising death row inmates. This composite character follows the example of the 1995 film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, as well as the Tim Robbins screenplay, which were extracted from Prejean’s accounts of two death row inmates in the 1993 book. What is not fiction is Prejean’s relentless real-life stance against capital punishment, which hits viewers from the opera’s opening moments.

Prison inmates surround Sister Helen (Barton) and de Rocher (Mayes).

Barton’s dramatic performance, vivid and arresting with a profusion of expressive facial gestures, infused her character with sympathy, warmth, awkwardness, sorrow, and strength as she struggled between advising de Rocher on how to face death and trying to comfort the victims’ families while abating their wrath. A powerful vocal presence, she easily filled the 2,750-seat theater at Cobb Energy Centre, yet demanded attention when she softly sang hymns.

While this was Barton’s role debut, baritone Michael Mayes is a veteran as de Rocher. During Act 1, he exuded fear and anger through body gestures, powerful vocals, and a just-plain-creepy demeanor. His portrayal undercut Prejean’s anti-death penalty position. All of that changed in Act 2. As Sister Helen and de Rocher made connection, warmth gradually ensued, the two bonding as execution neared, and de Rocher finally offering his confession. It was an unusually poignant moment.

Sister Helen (Barton) prays as de Rocher (Mayes) is about to be executed.

Nearly overshadowed were the strength and emotional character of de Rocher’s mother, played by mezzo-soprano Maria Zifchak. Her Act 1 appeal to the Pardon Board to save her son’s life was as heartbreaking as opera gets, a tribute not only to Zifchak but to Heggie and McNally. In the role of Sister Rose, soprano Karen Slack provided needed strength and guidance for Prejean’s troubled situation, especially in her Act 2 aria, when she stresses that forgiveness is the key to reaching de Rocher.

Projected scenery designed by Don Darnutzer combined with physical sets and scenery by R. Keith Brumley to form the stark interior of Angola Penitentiary, with two guard towers flanking the stage. One projected image was particularly frightening, as red blood streamed downward as a reminder of de Rocher’s crime. Under the direction of Tomer Zvulun, scene changes were seamless, helped along by creative lighting, scrims, and movable walkways.

 Veteran opera conductor Joseph Mechavich presided over the 58-strong orchestra with an unshakable focus on balance and ensemble, often heightening the singers’ fervent passion. Rolando Salazar led the chorus of inmates, which instilled an increased sense of terror, especially in the ensemble scene at the close of Act 1 as they jeered and mocked Prejean, causing her to faint. The atmosphere was lightened by the children’s chorus situated in balcony sections near the stage — reminding Prejean of her more placid days as a teacher.
Atlanta’s Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. (Michael Huebner)

The weighty choice between rehabilitation and revenge was pronounced in scenes with de Rocher’s family and those of his victims. What came through most pointedly were the real Prejean’s overarching intentions — forgiveness, atonement, the relentless pursuit of truth.

Atlanta Opera’s production of Dead Man Walking continues through Feb. 10. For more information, go here.

Formerly the classical music critic and fine arts reporter for the Birmingham News and AL.com, Michael Huebner is a freelance writer based in Birmingham, Ala. Before coming to Alabama, he wrote freelance for the Kansas City Star and Austin American-Statesman.