A Life for a Life: Dead Man Walking at the Teatro Real, Madrid

Heggie – Dead Man Walking

Sister Helen – Joyce DiDonato
Joseph De Rocher – Michael Mayes
Mrs De Rocher – Maria Zifchak
Her 19-year old son – Pablo García López
Her 14-year old son – Álvaro Martín
Sister Rose – Measha Brueggergosman
George Benton – Damián del Castillo
Father Grenville – Roger Padullés
Kitty Hart – María Hinojosa
Owen Hart – Toni Marsol
Jade Boucher – Marta de Castro
Howard Boucher – Vicenç Esteve
A Motor Cop – Enric Martínez-Castignani
Sister Catherine – Celia Alcedo
Sister Lilianne – Marifé Nogales
First Prison Guard – Enric Martínez-Castignani
Second Prison Guard – Tomeu Bibiloni

Coro Titular del Teatro Real, Orquesta Titular del Teatro Real / Mark Wigglesworth
Stage director – Leonard Foglia

Teatro Real, Madrid, Spain.  Saturday, February 3rd, 2018.

Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, based on the book of the same name by Sister Helen Prejean, has certainly established itself in the mainstream operatic repertoire.  Following the premiere in San Francisco in 2000, the work travelled to South Australia and Calgary, before its European premiere in Dresden in 2006.  Tonight’s performance was fourth in a run of six and represented the first Iberian performances of the opera.  It’s an attractive piece, written in a tonal, accessible idiom with a functional libretto by Terrence McNally.  This was the first time that I have heard it, and indeed any of Heggie’s work, and I must admit to having doubts about it.  Heggie’s word setting seems to consist of phrases that go up and down which, over the course of the three hours, start to become somewhat predictable.  He also sets some lines uncomfortably within register breaks for singers.  For a work set in Louisiana, a place with such a rich musical tradition, that headiness of southern heat seems to be missing, the orchestral soundtrack instead providing moody, nebulous accompaniment.  I use the term soundtrack deliberately because it seemed that often, what happened in the orchestra was there to provide passive accompaniment for what happened on stage rather than driving it.  Still, as a first opera it’s an impressive effort and a fine showcase for a house with a strong ensemble.

Photo: © Javier del Real | Teatro Real

The production used tonight originates with the Lyric Opera of Chicago and was the work of Leonard Foglia.  He gave us a logical and fluent piece of work, one that made use of fences and other structures (a school wall, the front of the courthouse) descending from and rising to the flies to provide constantly changing vistas.  There was one scene that grated somewhat – as Joyce DiDonato’s Sister Helen drove to Angola Penitentiary for the first time, she stood in front of a slideshow showing various images.  While a way to avoid having someone pretend to drive a car, it felt somewhat false.  Similarly, the opening prologue, depicting the rape and murder that led to De Rocher’s imprisonment, looked somewhat slapstick, lacking the horror that that moment really should cause us to feel.  And yet, Foglia fully brought out the hyper-masculine brutality of the world of the prisoners – there was a danger behind the bars that threatened Sister Helen – as well as the humanity that existed there.

Photo: © Javier del Real | Teatro Real

In many ways, this is a work that focuses on the love that stems from faith.  Yet to me, it felt much more universal than that.  As we see the crowd intone the Lord’s Prayer as Michael Mayes’ De Rocher is put to his death, that unresolvable dichotomy of using murder to murder the murderer, under the guise of religious justification, felt all too real.  Particularly so as the closing moments, instead of being accompanied by Heggie’s score, instead consisted of a single electronic beep as De Rocher’s life seeped away.

Photo: © Javier del Real | Teatro Real

Foglia also populated the stage with real, flesh and blood characters who truly lived their roles.  As Mrs De Rocher asks for a photo of her three sons together for the last time, time seems to stop as we are also invited to feel along with her the pain of losing a loved one, whatever he might have done.  It’s a testament to the highly detailed work done by Foglia, and the whole of the extensive cast, that the dramatic performances seem so vital and alive.  And not only dramatically – musically, this was a performance that had been exceptionally prepared.  The diction throughout the cast was excellent, coached with care by Carolyn Johnson.  Ana González’s children’s chorus was spot on in ensemble as well as with strikingly accurate southern US accents.  Mark Wigglesworth led a reading that allowed the evening to evolve at its own pace, never overpowering the singers – although the work seems to exist in a permanent state of andante.  The house orchestra, the Orquesta Sinfónica de Madrid, played extremely well for him – the brass menacing when required, the strings conjuring their misty vistas, and the percussion adding spice to the texture.  Very occasionally the string tuning would turn sour but this was temporary.

Photo: © Javier del Real | Teatro Real

Sister Helen is a good role for Joyce DiDonato.  It fits her warm stage presence well and her optimistic demeanour is well suited to the nun, guided by her faith.  She fully brought out the regret when thinking of how life could have been, and the hopefulness when she realized that she could make a difference.  It’s a role that sits quite high and unfortunately, DiDonato’s tuning wasn’t always accurate.  At times she was sharp, at others flat and intervals were not judged cleanly enough.  It’s a big sing for her and as the evening developed, the intonation sank further.  I’m sure others will find that her dramatic commitment more than compensated for the intonation issues and she was never anything less than completely dedicated to the role throughout the entire evening.

Photo: © Javier del Real | Teatro Real

Michael Mayes gave us a performance of striking physicality as De Rocher.  He managed to encapsulate the southern charm with a latent danger underneath as well as the journey, as he realized the magnitude of what he had done.  His diction wasn’t always completely clear – the flattened vowels didn’t always carry over into the auditorium – but his use of vocal colour was masterful.  He was unflinching in portraying De Rocher’s pain, not afraid to sacrifice the beauty of the tone in a way that was absolutely harrowing to watch and felt all too real.

Photo: © Javier del Real | Teatro Real

Maria Zifchak, all big hair and big voice, made a significant impression as Mrs de Rocher.  She also brought out the simplicity of someone who just wanted life to go back to how it was before.  The voice was large, with a fruity core and a raw exterior, and vibrations had a tendency to loosen on high at full volume. It did feel all of a piece with the desperation that her character was feeling.  Measha Brueggergosman was a fabulously sassy and soulful Sister Rose.  Her plush, velvety soprano coped well with some sustained high-lying writing where it soared effortlessly.  The remainder of the cast was excellent throughout.  Roger Padullés brought an attractive lyric tenor to Father Grenville.  Damián del Castillo was a tower of strength and humanity as Gorge Benton.

Photo: © Javier del Real | Teatro Real

As a performance, one could hardly have asked for one that had been better prepared and executed.  We were given a staging of rare humanity, one in which believable characters were formed and lived before us.  I have my doubts about the work itself but above all, where it had its real impact was when it fell silent.  As we were left, confronted by the electronic noise a life edging away, it’s hard not to reflect on the futility of killing for killing’s sake.  Tonight showed the Teatro Real at its considerable best.

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