The Twin Cities finally has the opportunity to see what is said to be the most produced opera of the 21st century. Minnesota Opera is offering a transcendent performance experience with Dead Man Walking based on the memoir by Sister Helen Prejean. In a superb and soulful lead portrayal as the Roman Catholic nun who became a symbol for the movement against capital punishment, mezzo-soprano Catherine Martin reaches deep within to find the inner space where one must enter to forgive the unforgivable. She is also the audience’s mystic guide. However, wherever you are in the capital punishment debate, be assured that this opera is not a political polemic. What it is, is a penetrating examination of the difficulty many people have in the practice of forgiveness.
Providence has led Sister Helen to become the spiritual advisor to Death Row inmate, Joseph De Rocher. We actually see the murder of a teenaged girl and boy portrayed joltingly on the Ordway stage in a scene that also depicts rape. This harrowing evil is more than Joseph can bring himself to admit. The opera’s thrust is Sister Helen’s endeavor to bring him to honestly admitting to himself and the survivors of those he murdered that he committed the horrific crime.
Sister Prejean’s view of Christianity is that honesty about one’s wrongdoing is a prerequisite for being in alignment with God at the time of one’s death. She also holds a corresponding view that only God, and only God, can judge a person’s eternal life beyond death. The audience is impelled to turn this over meditatively as they behold this magnetic production.
Seth Carico is a veritable earthquake in human form in his portrayal of the obsinate Joseph. This is an unhinged man steeped in denial, who resists and writhes against any acknowledgement of his diabolical deed. Carico renders one of the most visceral performances you will ever seen in an opera. He might put you on the edge of your seat.
In devastating contrast is Emily Pulley as his mother, simply listed as Mrs. Patrick De Rocher. Pulley’s delivery might just rip your heart out. The parental fallout is fleshed out further as Robb Asklof vividly elicits the bitterness of the father of the murdered boy with a searingly unresolved sense of grief. Karen Slack is wondrously endearing as Sister Helen’s supportive friend, Sister Rose.
Dead Man Walking is served by a profoundly felt libretto by Terrence McNally, the playwright renowned for his gay representations. Those who know his body of work will recall his serious drama, Corpus Christi, wherein Jesus’s disciples are played as gay men living in Texas. Dead Man Walking is set in neighboring Louisiana, and though it has no gay undercurrents, it too, emanates tender vulnerability that must contend with harsh reality—a phenomenon that McNally is gifted in relating. He creates the opportunity for the performance space to become a sacred space of transformation and director Joel Ivany achieves that brilliantly on the main Ordway stage.
Jake Heggie’s music movingly mixes the sound of “old time religion” spirituals that were heard in the Old South along with sweeping classical majesty. Conductor Michael Christie’s orchestra aligns with that mix beautifully. The use of the cross and the American Flag become central and emblematic to Erhard Rom’s arresting set and projection design. These symbols are not polemical statements but a call to ponder just what they might mean or should mean. The audience is left with that proposition.
Dead Man Walking
Through Feb. 3
Ordway Center, 345 Washington St., St. Paul