Jake Heggie’s first opera, Dead Man Walking (2000), tells the story of a nun who becomes the spiritual advisor to a death row inmate at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. The plot is exciting, the libretto is at once colloquial and heartfelt, and the music complements every element along the way. Even a mediocre performance of this opera would have made for a thrilling Friday night and last night’s performance by the Boston Opera Collaborative (with help from Boston City Singers) at The Somerville Theatre was far beyond that.
Heggie’s deconstruction of blues and Southern gospel harmonies manifest themselves both subtly and overtly throughout the score, guiding the drama and placing the listener in America’s south. The insertion of these cultural artifacts, including the slight inflection of a Southern accent the performers took on, make the already haunting story even more powerful. By providing a familiar societal framework these modern references make it hard to forget that the opera was based on a true story.
The opera opens and closes with the hymn He Will Gather Us Around, which becomes a sort of leitmotif for the protagonist Sister Helen Prejean. The melody reappears in several configurations, guiding Sister Helen as she struggles to maintain her spiritual support for the death row inmate, Joseph De Rocher, despite the violent crimes he committed.
The conducting was wonderful. There was not a moment where it seemed Michael Sakir was not in control, yet at the same time there was a fluidity of expression which allowed for a lively performance by the singers. Even in moments with the entire cast on stage and the orchestra at full tilt, I never felt the slightest anxiety that the music might be slipping away. One wishes only that there was more room in the pit for a heftier string section, though they did well considering the logistical disadvantages.
While there were no overly stellar performances , the opera was finely cast. Singers inhabited their roles with maturity and appropriate style. With the help of director David Gram, the cast was able to convey the complexities of the libretto, which allows the audience simultaneously to root for and detest the inmate Joseph De Rocher. Terrence McNally’s libretto balances profundity with playful humor, profanity with scripture, and atrocious evils with virtuous morality. The cast was sentient of these contradictions. Jonathan Stinson as De Rocher maintained the perfect balance between tough-guy façade and the inner mortal, sensitive and fearful. Prison warden George Benton (Evan Ross) welcomes Sister Helen with warm hospitality but never quite rids himself of unabashed cynicism. And Sister Helen (Courtney Miller), for the entire opera burdened with De Rocher’s lost soul, somehow keeps up her kindly affectations.
It was the carefully balanced portrayal of these opposing natures that allowed the opera to transcend mere entertainment to become a piece of living philosoph. The issue of capital punishment is central to the opera, but so are concepts of redemption, duality, and justice. The director’s astute program notes pointed out that the opera “has been a labor of love” and the product of two years of planning. The passion of those behind the production to bring this story to life onstage was altogether evident.
Performances continue on March 16, 17, and 18 at Somerville Theatre in Davis Square. It is worth noting, as the BOC website does, that this work contains strong language and a moment of onstage violence.