Welsh National Opera 2018-19 Review: Dead Man Walking

Lucia Cervoni And Morgan Smith Star In An Emotionally Charged Presentation

By Alan Neilson

(Photo: Johan Persson)

Welsh National Opera’s imaginative and ambitious summer program of operas, exhibition, and talks, under the banner headline of “Freedom,” is dedicated to exploring the theme of human rights. Four operas were scheduled, all of which focused on an individual who sought to protect, release or comfort a prisoner or someone under threat. In Menotti’s “The Consul,” it is a wife who fights against a totalitarian state and an unresponsive bureaucracy to obtain a visa for her husband so as to bring him to safety. Sister Helen befriends Joseph De Rocher, as he prepares for his execution, in Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking,” bringing him comfort during his final hours. In “Fidelio,” (Act two) Leonore manages to save her husband’s life, while in Dallapiccola’s, “The Prisoner,” the mother is forced to suffer her son’s execution. The program concludes with a fifth work, the life affirming children’s opera “Brundibar” by Krása, who rewrote the score from memory, and performed it with the children in Terezin concentrate camp just outside Prague, while awaiting transport to Auschwitz.

The Production

The first to be performed was “Dead Man Walking,” which since its premiere at San Francisco Opera in 2000, has traveled the world, knocking up almost 300 performances. Based on a true story, it concentrates on the relationship between the prisoner, Joesph De Rocher, and the nun, Sister Helen Prejean, although it also considers the effect of his crimes on the families of De Rocher and his victims, and Sister Helen’s attempts to respond to their pain. Prior to the performance, there was a question and answer session with the director, Martin Constantine and the composer, Jake Heggie. They talked about the themes and issues raised by the work, and Heggie was keen to stress that this is not an opera about the rights and wrongs of the death penalty, but about the journey undertaken by all the people involved, and the possibility of redemption.

It is important from the outset that it is made clear that De Rocher is guilty of the horrendous crimes for which he has been convicted; any sympathy for him must arise with the full knowledge of what he has done, and without any doubt as to his guilt. Constantine’s direction pulled no punches. The opera opens with two teenagers alone in a secluded area when De Rocher and his brother arrive. They shoot the young man dead and brutally stab the girl to death, having first raped her. Leaving little to the imagination, the staging was brutal and horrific. At the end of the opera, De Rocher is executed, in a clinical, correct and cold manner. He is strapped down, asked if he has any final words and then given a lethal injection. It was equally brutal and horrific. The three executions, two illegal, one legal, act as a frame for the interactions between Sister Helen and De Rocher and provided a vivid context, which demanded reflection from the audience.

Although defined as a semi-staged production, it lacked nothing. The orchestra seated towards the back of the stage was in two parts dissected by a walkway, along which the singers were able to exit and enter. Behind the orchestra was a raised area upon which the male chorus sat, from which they were able to bear witness to the happenings below. The front of the stage was used as the performance area. Scenery, designed by Misty Buckley, was limited to panels of wire fencing, which were rolled on and off as needed and moved easily about to create a prison-like environment. It was all very simple, but highly effective in defining and altering the claustrophobic intensity of the drama, which was successfully magnified by Mark Jonathan’s lighting. Costumes by April Dalton were excellent, and perfectly captured the nature of the characters, but without drawing attention to their design.

Under Constantine’s direction, all the singers acted out their parts superbly, capturing their conflicting emotions, inner pain and anxieties. Moreover, in the cases of De Rocher and Sister Helen, but also to a lesser degree in the other characters, the journey they experience was carefully and successfully brought alive.

It was a powerful presentation, and the presence of the orchestra on the stage rather than detracting from the work, had a positive effect. The concentrating of the drama into a smaller space, intensified the very personal interactions between the characters, and by having the chorus separated by the orchestra, they became distant observers, whose importance to the principal characters was of little relevance. Whilst musically and dramatically the orchestra and chorus fulfilled their roles, their presence went by unnoticed by Sister Helen, Joe, his mother, and the others as they attempted to deal with their own personal struggles. When the chorus did make an occasional appearance at the front of the stage, its impact heightened the dramatic intensity and threat.

A Solid Cast

The two main roles of Sister Helen Prejean and Joseph De Rocher were played by the mezzo-soprano, Lucia Cervoni, and the baritone, Morgan Smith. The connection they created was finely drawn and developed at a deep level, so that every line was emotionally fraught as they struggled to understand and trust each other, and to establish a bond, but which could only be achieved by recognizing the truth about themselves.

For her part, Sister Helen, who is struggling to develop a loving and trusting relationship with De Rocher, needs to come to terms with the pain his crimes have caused to others, and the difficulties she is having in accepting that what lies beneath his evil deeds is a good person, whom God loves. Cervoni’s portrayal was superbly crafted; her journey from a naïve nun, teaching young children, to dealing with a cold-blooded killer was detailed, nuanced and emotionally complex. Positive, optimistic, but without experience in such matters, she comes under intense pressure from every quarter, including De Rocher who keeps lying to her and pushing her away, but eventually emerges stronger, with her faith in God intact. It was an excellent performance that captured the emotional roller-coaster of the role.

Vocally, Cervoni was perfectly suited to the role. Her singing was securely grounded, agile and characterized by clear articulation, so that every word could be easily understood, and despite her, at times, emotionally fraught state her singing was also attractively rendered. Moreover, her phrasing was subtle and detailed so that her inner turmoil, her shifting emotions, her hopes and fears, disappointments and belief in God were made evident, and made her relationship with De Rocher believable.

For his part, De Rocher is only able to find peace when, in his final moments, he eventually confesses his crimes, which leads to his blustering façade collapsing and to accepting Sister Helen’s love. Smith’s essaying of the scene was truly moving, his remorse, fear, and pain brilliantly brought to life. Starting in almost a matter of fact manner, “We’d been drinking and smoking weed,” he related the events leading up to the rape and murder, becoming increasingly animated, egged on by Sister Helen, his voice full of rising emotion, until he admits “I killed her” at which point he falls to the floor weeping, his sorrow and suffering openly on display.

Throughout Smith ensured that De Rocher was never allowed to descend into caricature or a one-dimensional monster, always presenting him as very human, with very human emotions, confused and afraid, angry and reflective, yet at the same time deluded, and constantly in a state of denial. Every scene was played with an emotional intensity, founded upon his versatile technique and ability to inflect the voice with expressive honesty. His monologue at the beginning of Act two, “Everybody hear that?” in which he finds the date of his execution was an emotional tour-de-force in which, seething with repressed anger, he reflects on his forthcoming execution: apparently calm he gives voice to his thoughts, the voice swinging between repressed rage and irony.

Anne Mason, the British mezzo-soprano played the role of Joseph De Rocher’s mother, Mrs Patrick Rocher, in what was a poignantly rendered performance. Her voice was strong, firm and versatile. She created a nuanced and poignant portrayal of a mother in total denial about her son’s crimes, “Joe, my boy is not a bad boy,” and who is unable to come to terms with the situation. She delivered the role with assurance, capturing the frailty and the suffering of the character.

The soprano, Rose Rowell, playing the role of Sister Rose gave a solid performance, in which the highpoint was her expressive duet with Sister Helen, to whom she offers support and comfort when the pressures of trying to help De Rocher begin to overwhelm her. Her singing displayed flexibility, with a strong and secure upper register.

Father Grenville was essayed by the tenor, Andrew Henley, who sang with a relaxed easy demeanor, and a pleasing lilt. His skepticism and lack of sympathy with Sister Helen’s outlook took the form of a casual dismissiveness and was clearly constructed.

The Warden was played by the baritone, Oscar Castellino, who gave a strong portrayal as a bit of a hard ass. His had a limited degree of sympathy for Sister Helen, but had been too long in the job. He had seen it all before. His voice has a warm and pleasing timbre, which he used intelligently and brought depth to the part.

Baritone, Aaron Holmes, in the role of the traffic cop, who stops Sister Helen on her way to the prison, sang with free-flowing confidence, with a clear, strong and pleasing timbre.

The parents of the murdered teenagers, Owen, and Kitty Hart, and Howard and Jade Boucher were performed, respectively, by baritone, Owen Webb, soprano, Claire Watkins, tenor, Richard Roberts and soprano, Catherine Wood. All performed their roles effectively, their most dramatic contribution being the Act one sextet, “You don’t know what it’s like to bear a child,” in which they confront Sister Helen and De Rocher’s mother in the parking lot. It was Webb as Mr. Hart, however, who had the most developed role. In Act one he is very angry and frustrated and sang with power and intensity. By the end of Act two his position had weakened, he no longer knew what should happen, and has split from his wife. Webb captured the desolation and uncertainty which now colored his rage, in what was a nuanced reading.

A Leading Force

The Welsh National Opera Orchestra, under the baton of Karen Kamensek, played its part in making this an intensely emotional production, creating a sound which moved easily between grand, sweeping, large scale sections to intimate, clearly defined and detailed portraits. Kamensek caught the brutality and anger which underpins the music, reflecting the suffering of all involved as well as the harsh conditions of prison life on death row, yet was also able to elicit the melodic calm that occasionally raised its head.

This was a presentation of high quality in which all played their part. However, it was undoubtedly the relationship between Cervoni and Smith, playing the leading roles, that allowed the production to flourish, a relationship which was enmeshed in an entangled web of contradictory and highly charged emotions. It was also a production which successfully highlighted Heggie and, his librettist, Terrence McNally’s aim of illustrating the fact that the decision to execute a person, whether or not one agrees with the death penalty, is not an easy path to follow, and further victims will be destined to suffer from the guilty man’s death.

One minor point of irritation was Welsh National Opera’s decision to warn the audience about the violence during the opening scene, and to allow triggered members to enter after the scene had ended, in what was an ill thought through, meaningless piece of virtue signaling. Firstly, it removes the very necessary visual shock, which defines the contextual reality, which will if missed inevitably diminish understanding and the ability to relate to the work, unless of course, one assumes the first scene is unnecessary, which it is certainly not! Secondly, why not warn the audience about the execution at the end, so triggered audience members can leave before it occurs, unless of course, one assumes that a legal execution is much easier on the conscience, which is unlikely, given that it happens in our name. Fortunately, few, if any, audience members took up the offer of disturbing the performance to protect their own sensibilities.


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