It’s ironic that in the land of the Standing O, the surest sign of success is rapt, seated silence. That’s what the Fort Worth Opera achieved on Saturday night with Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking. This was musical drama of a high order, and for once coughs and shuffling sounds virtually disappeared from Bass Performance Hall as the audience zeroed in on a life-and-death theatrical experience.
The success was a good omen for Dallas, as well. Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer are currently at work on another opera, Moby-Dick, which will be premiered in the Dallas Opera’s new home, the Winspear Opera House, about a year from now.
Dead Man Walking has been busily making the operatic rounds since its introduction by the San Francisco Opera in 2000, and Saturday night’s local premiere demonstrated why. This is engrossing theater on a subject of great interest, with a musical score strongly enhancing the sense of drama.
Heggie is a composer with a strong lyrical bent. He also has a gift for creating a brooding atmosphere through effective use of the orchestra. The effect overall is a strongly positive one.
The subject of Dead Man Walking is drawn from real life. A Louisiana nun, Sister Helen Prejean, befriends a condemned killer (a composite of two actual convicts). She tries to get him to admit and come to terms with what he did. Other affected persons, including the families of the two murder victims and the convict’s own family, are also dealing with problems created by the crime.
It is the working out of these problems, not the question of guilt or innocence, that gives the drama its punch. The question of the death penalty looms large. One may guess what the views of Heggie and librettist Terrence McNally are on this subject, but they take care to view the matter from both sides. The families of the murder victims are treated sympathetically.
A superb cast of singer-actors was onstage Saturday. The old operatic tradition of taking-a-stance-and-semaphoring is long past; nowadays you’d better make the audience believe in your character. This Robynne Redmon as Sister Helen and Daniel Okulitch as the killer certainly did. Their interaction dominated the evening.
High dramatic quality was evident as well among many other members of the large cast. I was deeply moved, for instance, by the performance of Sheryl Woods as the killer’s mother, given the impossible task of pleading her son’s cause at a clemency hearing. Her character seemed painfully real.
Joe Illick led a powerful performance by the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, and the Fort Worth Opera Chorus was both a vocal and dramatic asset.
Another strong point was the stage direction of David Gately, which heightened the drama in many ways. This was almost a shocking departure from his work of the previous evening’s Cinderella. He obviously is a man of many facets.
Designers Harry Frehner and Scott Reid have worked wonders in using chain-link-fence segments to create a prison-like sense of oppression, and Reid’s costumes are a further enhancement.
Bizet’s Carmen will wind up the Fort Worth Opera’s triple-header weekend on Sunday afternoon. The three operas will be repeated May 8-10.