Best known as the 1995 film by Tim Robbins, this new adaptation of Sister Helen Prejean’s autobiographical book Dead Man Walking is a searing, profound tale, and indeed one well suited to opera. The medium’s ability to express the interiority of emotions in a story with a simple plot but powerful themes is, in some respects, the opposite of film, which tends to be exterior and more psychologically obscure, compressing time through the use of editing. By contrast, the opera decompresses the moments of drama, extending fleeting thoughts and feelings into sustained moments of deep expression.
Neither the music nor libretto are excessively showy or otherwise obtrusive, but are instead elegant in allowing the characters and their raw, conflicted emotions to hold the spotlight, letting the story play out in a captivating, relatively naturalistic fashion (well, naturalistic for opera, anyway).
While never overtly didactic, this opera serves as a passionate critique of the death penalty. Dead Man Walking does not make righteous pronouncements or present us with an innocent man facing a grave injustice. Instead we are presented with an individual who has committed terrible crimes, and we witness his struggle to accept responsibility for them in the face of his own imminent death. Even though the opera is fairly unambiguous in its anti-death penalty stance, one of its great dramatic strengths is that one is hopefully left feeling emotions almost as conflicted as the characters themselves.
For all the discussion of the murderer, Dead Man Walking is really Sister Helen Prejean’s tale, something particularly evident in this opera. The role has by far the greatest number of arias and she is on stage almost constantly, whereas her co-star is absent for long periods. Kirsti Harms is excellent in the part, a beautiful singer and highly effective operatic actor to boot, imbuing the character with great credibility.
Regardless, Teddy Tahu Rhodes receives top billing in this production, and deservedly so. Even aside from his star power and past tenure in the role, he undeniably steals the show and dominates every scene in which he appears. Rhodes is stunning as convicted murderer and rapist Joseph De Rocher, his powerful baritone is practically hypnotic, and his stage presence irresistible, even when shackled and seated as he is for much of his performance. His portrayal of an angry man denying (and, perhaps, in denial about) his guilt and slowly succumbing to his fear of the inevitable is breathtaking.
Although the show’s advertising focuses on the imagery of Rhodes’ sweaty, chiseled torso, he is actually only shirtless in one scene, and although there were certainly those in the audience audibly getting their jollies from this, the scene did not seem wholly gratuitous. Using Rhodes’ sex appeal as a marketing tool is one thing, but the effect of his casting perhaps raises a problematic issue.
Although the character is a killer and rapist and thus automatically unsympathetic, Rhodes’ portrayal of de Rocher seems in some danger of mitigating against this core fact. And it is not only due to the casting of a handsome performer. The operatic interpretation of the role is arguably more sympathetic than in previous tellings of this story. In particular, the character’s demonstrative racism and extreme ignorance are largely excised. Although it is a bit of a case of apples and oranges, one can’t help but contrast with Sean Penn’s weasely, white-trash screen portrayal, making Rhodes seem like a romantic leading man by comparison.
Perhaps this was intentional, to focus on the key issue of a condemned man and his state of mind rather than explore his cultural context. In any case, the character is rather bereft of intrinsic repugnance, as distinct from that of the crimes themselves.
Dead Man Walking features an excellent cast filling out the various roles of the warden, guards, nuns, children and especially the families of both de Rocher and his victims, well supported by a large chorus. It must be noted, however, that there is a minor travesty in the hyping of Anthony Callea’s inclusion in the cast, to say nothing of his star billing. In reality, Callea sings literally only a couple of lines or so, playing the tiny (unnamed, no less) role of one of de Rocher’s younger brothers. Although one can perhaps forgive the promoters’ wish to market the production to the wider public, anyone expecting to hear much at all of the former Australian Idol singer is in for a rude surprise. And the less said about the incongruous cameo by Alan Jones (yes, THE Alan Jones), the better.
The complex, visually striking set by Dan Potra employs a steeply raked stage, creating an exaggerated perspective of a cell block, the sides of the key performance area lined with multileveled rows of cells frequently filled by the threatening chorus of inmates. A novel aspect of this design (necessitated by the venue) is that the orchestra, rather than being situated in a conventional pit, are also incarcerated in these cells, performing above the action. This excellent set and talented cast come together at the end of each act for two stunning tableaux, overwhelming visual and aural feasts as the entire cast populates this evocative, multi-storey prison and twice raise the drama to a crescendo.
It is thus all the more impressive that the final moment is ultimately simple, downbeat and quiet, leaving the audience to ponder this potentially ambiguous finale.
Dead Man Walking is a captivating modern opera that has been wonderfully realised in this excellent production, and should delight opera devotees and first-timers alike.
Andrew McManus in association with Alexander Productions presents
DEAD MAN WALKING
Music by Jake Heggie Libretto by Terrence McNally
Venue: State Theatre | 49 Market Street, Sydney
Dates: 27 September – 8 Oct
Duration: 2 hours and 45 mins with an interval
Bookings: Ticketmaster 136 100 or www.ticketmaster.com.au