Wednesday, 21 February 2018

18 years after its premiere, Jake Heggie's 'Dead Man Walking' receives its first UK performance

Jake Heggie: Dead Man Walking - Joyce DiDonato, Michael Mayes - Barbican/BBCSymphony Orchestra (photo Mark Allen/Barbican)
Jake Heggie: Dead Man Walking - Joyce DiDonato, Michael Mayes - Barbican/BBC Symphony Orchestra
(photo Mark Allen/Barbican)
Jake Heggie Dead Man Walking; Joyce DiDonato, Michael Mayes, Maria Zifchak, dir: Leonard Foglia, BBC Symphony Orchestra, cond: Mark Wigglesworth; Barbican
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 20 2018 Star rating: 3.5
A powerful contemporary drama, Jake Heggie and Terence McNally's filmic opera gets its UK premiere at last

The work of Philip Glass and John Adams apart, there is a vein of American contemporary opera which appears all to rarely in the UK. Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking is a prime example, premiered in 2000 at San Francisco Opera it has had many productions in the USA and is emblematic of a style of lyrical contemporary opera which deals with contemporary issues. As part of the Barbican Centre's The Art of Change season, exploring how artists respond to, reflect and even change the social and political landscape, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Barbican presented the UK premiere of Dead Man Walking.

Semi-staged in the Barbican Hall, Dead Man Walking was directed by Leonard Foglia, and featured Joyce DiDonato as Sister Helen, Michael Mayes as Joseph De Rocher, Maria Zifchak as Mrs Patrick De Rocher and Measha Brueggergosman as Sister Rose, conducted by Mark Wigglesworth; all artists who took part in the recent Spanish premiere of Dead Man Walking at the Teatro Real, Madrid in a production which originated at Chicago City Opera. The cast was completed by Susan Bullock, Toni Marsol, Susan Bickley, Mark LeBrocq, James Creswell and Michael Bracegirdle, with the BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Finchley Children's Music Group and singers from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

Jake Heggie: Dead Man Walking - Measha Brueggergosman, Joyce DiDonato, Matthew Healy, Louis Hurley, Maria Zifchak - Barbican/BBCSymphony Orchestra (photo Mark Allen/Barbican)
Jake Heggie: Dead Man Walking - Measha Brueggergosman, Joyce DiDonato, Matthew Healy, Louis Hurley, Maria Zifchak - Barbican/BBC Symphony Orchestra (photo Mark Allen/Barbican)
Based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean, Dead Man Walking tells a powerful story with the relationship between two people at its heart. A love story of sorts, it has the advantage of great focus on these two, the nun Sister Helen (Joyce DiDonato), and the killer on death row, Joseph De Rocher (Michael Mayes), who refuses to accept his guilt. Both go on a journey towards the transcendent, transformative ending, and at the Barbican Joyce DiDonato and Michael Mayes gave performances of such stunning strength and complete identification in the central two roles.

The libretto is by the playwright Terence McNally and it takes a naturalistic, almost filmic approach to the piece. There are 18 short scenes in all, and the text is full of naturalistic detail which seems more appropriate in a spoken drama than in an opera. The drama is presented straight, we start with the crime, thus making Joseph De Rocher's guilt clear, and then work from the first meeting of Sister Helen and Joseph De Rocher through to his demise. It is essentially a two hander, all the other roles are secondary, though McNally and Heggie craft powerful moments.

I found the approach a bit too literal, too filmic and came back to the question of why opera, what did the music add to McNally's text?
McNally does not seem to have followed Martin Crimp's (librettist of George Benjamin's In the little hill and Written on skin) observation that a libretto needs to have something missing to leave space for the music. You sense that a European team of composer and librettist might have taken a more abstract, perhaps tighter chamber approach. Instead McNally and Heggie have created a grand opera, there is a chorus, children's chorus and a total of 22 named roles, not to mention the huge orchestra which virtually filled the Barbican stage.

Jake Heggie: Dead Man Walking - Maria Zifchak, Measha Brueggergosman, Joyce DiDonato, Susan Bullock, Susan Bickely, Mark LeBroq, TOni Marsol - Barbican/BBCSymphony Orchestra (photo Mark Allen/Barbican)
Jake Heggie: Dead Man Walking - Maria Zifchak, Measha Brueggergosman, Joyce DiDonato, Susan Bullock, Susan Bickely, Mark LeBroq, TOni Marsol - Barbican/BBC Symphony Orchestra (photo Mark Allen/Barbican)
Heggie's music seems to take Samuel Barber as its starting point, complex, intelligent yet lyrical, and throw in a series of contemporary influences. It has to be born in mind, however, that this was Heggie's first opera and he has written nine more, perhaps we deserve to hear one of his later ones to find out how his style developed and matured. There were plenty of finely lyrical, expressive lines, some quite traditional duets and ensembles, even a sextet, as well as large-scale act finales. Yet there were too many moments when the music seemed merely illustrative, adding background to McNally's text rather than saying something of its own.

You sense the piece will survive in the repertoire thanks to its strong central role of Sister Helen, a role initially associated with Susan Graham and which Joyce DiDonato has sung since 2002. It presents a contemporary diva with a powerful, contemporary role, beautifully written for the voice and full of intense drama. Joyce DiDonato clearly identifies with the role and her performance transcended the limitations of the opera to create a powerful drama. Particularly in the later scenes when the relationship with Michael Mayes' strongly etched Joseph De Rocher becomes more intense.

Around this central pair, there were lots of smaller roles. For me, the most powerful moments were these occasional scenes, a strong and moving solo for Joseph De Rocher's mother (Maria Zifchak), and most notably the two encounters that Sister Helen (Joyce DiDonato) has with the victims' parents (Susan Bickley, Susan Bullock, Toni Marsol, Mark Le Brocq). James Creswell and Michael Bracegirdle provided neatly etched characters as the prison warden and chaplain, and the young singers from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama provided a wealth of smaller characters. Measha Brueggergosman as one of Sister Helen's fellow nuns provided as sort of conscience figure for Sister Helen and given Brueggergosman's sympathetic performance, you rather wish this idea had been followed through more.

Jake Heggie: Dead Man Walking - Michael Mayes, James Creswell, Joyce DiDonato, students from the Guildhall School - Barbican/BBCSymphony Orchestra (photo Mark Allen/Barbican)
Jake Heggie: Dead Man Walking - Michael Mayes, James Creswell, Joyce DiDonato, students from the Guildhall School - Barbican/BBC Symphony Orchestra (photo Mark Allen/Barbican)
Mark Wigglesworth directed the orchestra deftly, controlling his huge forces and clearly taking control of the piece's large scale structures. Having the orchestra on stage, though, was something of a limitation and there were a few moments when the balance rather favoured the orchestra too much. Listen on the radio to get a better idea of the ideal balance.

I sensed that there was a powerful, taut drama underlying the piece, but at the moment I found it too overblown,  a little pruning and slimming would not go amiss. A reduced orchestration, such as the one produced for John Corigliano's Ghosts of Versailles, would be more than helpful I think. But also a trimming of the piece itself, reducing the running time (three hours including one interval) and the number of smaller characters, and cutting out a lot of the unnecessary verbiage and detail.

Approaching its 20th birthday, Dead Man Walking is still central to the American operatic experience and will no doubt crop up in Europe occasionally. But it is a big undertaking, and we must be glad that the Barbican and the BBC took the plunge.

Jake Heggie: Dead Man Walking - Michael Mayes - Barbican/BBCSymphony Orchestra (photo Mark Allen/Barbican)
Jake Heggie: Dead Man Walking - Michael Mayes -
Barbican/BBC Symphony Orchestra (photo Mark Allen/Barbican)
Jake Heggie - Dead Man Walking

BBC Symphony Orchestra 
BBC Singers  
Finchley Children's Music Group 
Mark Wigglesworth - conductor
Leonard Foglia - director
Terence McNally - librettist

Joyce DiDonato - Sister Helen
Michael Mayes - Joseph De Rocher
Maria Zifchak - Mrs Patrick De Rocher
Measha Brueggergosman - Sister Rose
Susan Bullock - Kitty Hart
Toni Marsol - Owen Hart
Susan Bickley - Jade Boucher
Mark LeBrocq - Howard Boucher
James Creswell - George Benton
Michael Bracegirdle - Father Grenville
Matthew Dixon - Motor Cop
Louis Hurley - Older  Brother
Matthew Healey - Younger  Brother
Katherine McIndoe - Sister Catherine
Lara Blenkowska - Sister Lilian
Henri Tikkanen - Prison Guard 1
Alexander Jones - Prison Guard 2
Olivia Sjoberg - First Mother
Jessica Ouston - Mrs Charlton
Diana Samper - Teenage Girl
Manuel Palazzo - Teenage Boy
Alejandro Pantany - Anthony De Rocher 











Elsewhere on this blog:
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  • Satyagraha: Philip Glass's opera at ENO - Opera review (****)
  • Musical Arcadia: Handel at Vauxhall on Signum Classics - CD review (****)
  • Motherhood and memory: Helen Grime's Bright Travellers at the Wigmore Hall - Concert review (****)
  • Bernstein, Gubaidulina & more: violinist Vadim Gluzman on the importance of contemporary repertoire  - Interview
  • Music in a cold climate: the sounds of Hansa Europe - CD review (***)
  • Spices! Perfumes! Toxins! Approachably melodic percussion concerto - CD review - CD review (***)
  • A Triptych: Irrational Theatre at the King's Head - Opera review (***)
  • Topsy-turvy fun: Cal McCrystal directs G&S's Iolanthe - Opera review (*****)
  • Old-fashioned passion: Benjamin Godard's Dante - CD review
  • Korngold's Die tote Stadti at the Semperoper in Dresden - Opera review (****)
  • Powerful stuff: Verdi's La forza del Destino in Cardiff - Opera review (****)
  • A Portrait: composer Dai Fujikura introduces the music at the forthcoming Wigmore Hall concert  - my interview
  • Home


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