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'Dead Man Walking' Sings Again

Joyce DiDonato as Sister Helen Prejean and Philip Cutlip as Joseph De Rocher in Jake Heggie's opera <em>Dead Man Walking</em>.
Felix Sanchez
courtesy of Houston Grand Opera
Joyce DiDonato as Sister Helen Prejean and Philip Cutlip as Joseph De Rocher in Jake Heggie's opera Dead Man Walking.

It's so rare for a new opera — let alone a new American opera — to be recorded even once. But few new operas have been so rapturously received as Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking, which recounts the true story of a Catholic nun, Sister Helen Prejean, and the convicted rapist and double murderer Joseph De Rocher before he was executed by the state of Louisiana.

At first glance, it might be easy to dismiss Dead Man as a fillip of pop culture at the opera house, a bestselling-book-turned-major-motion-picture-turned-opera on a topic, capital punishment, that is pretty much guaranteed to inflame audiences. And yet Heggie's brilliance ensures that his opera, in all of its abundant musical beauty and genuine emotional poignance, is a worthy addition to the repertoire.

So here we have Dead Man Walking recorded by Houston Grand Opera, ten years after it was first recorded by San Francisco Opera for the now-dormant Erato label. The San Francisco recording is apparently now out of print and not even available digitally. (Greatly missed this time around: the full libretto, which was included in the Erato recording. Ah, the passage of time and the full-blown arrival of the economic crisis ... )

That first recording boasted an excellent cast led by Susan Graham as Sister Helen and John Packard as De Rocher. Patrick Summers conducted both that recording and the new one. And here Frederica von Stade reprises her wrenching portrayal of Joseph's mother.

But mezzo Joyce Di Donato — who, like Graham, has been a longtime champion of Heggie's work and who gave the New York premiere of Dead Man at City Opera in 2002 — leaves an indelible stamp on the role. Di Donato is, as her fans know, a superb singer and one of opera's leading lights. Here she proves herself to be an actress of equal power and presence. By contrast, Philip Cutlip's De Rocher sounds more bewildered and lost — a victim of his own life spinning beyond his understanding or control — than John Packard's snarling, spitting, ball-of-fury portrayal a decade ago. This may well have Cutlip's artistic choice, but the visceral impact is diminished.

The libretto by Terrence McNally, based on Prejean's novel, shines light on the characters' emotional journeys, from the unspeakable and insolvable grief imposed on the families of Joseph's victims, to Sister Helen's own cascade of inner struggles and spiritual reckonings.

Astonishingly, Dead Man was Heggie's first opera. In the years since it debuted, he has become particularly notable for writing warm, lyrical and thoroughly nuanced songs and arias for female performers, and that's a quality found in utter abundance in Dead Man. (Considering its jailhouse setting, one might imagine that Dead Man would exist in as masculine a universe as Janacek's From The House of the Dead, but it's nearly precisely the opposite.)

For example, consider "God's love and abundance," a duet for Sister Helen and her colleague and confidante Sister Rose, sung here by Di Donato and the astounding, glowing Measha Brueggergosman, who increasingly has to be recognized as a major force on the stage:

Whether you have seen a staged production of Dead Man Walking or not — and no matter where you find yourself on the spectrum of religious or political belief — this recording will speak to you.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.