Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Sound Of Dead Silence...

Perhaps the most striking moment in Madison Opera’s production of Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking” is the moment when convicted killer Joseph De Rocher (Michael Mayes) confesses his sin to Sister Helen Prejean (Daniela Mack).  After the admission, there is no singing and no instrumentation – only silence. And at the final dress rehearsal on Wednesday night, in a hall with hundreds of patrons, cast and crew members, that moment was dead silent.  No coughing or rustling.  No breathing.  Only silence.
Michael Mayes and Daniela Mack
Surrounded by that silence is a work that is one of the most challenging and complex I have ever seen staged.  It is appropriate that it is performed within the operatic genre, as I feel it is the only art form that can convey this wide mix of emotional range.
“Dead Man Walking” is not a statement about whether the death penalty is right or wrong. It is about the human struggle to resolve the unresolvable.  It is a journey to the truth, which leads to forgiveness. The violent rape and murder scene in the prologue is hard to watch, as it should be.  But those few minutes set up an emotional, thought provoking performance the likes of which I have never before experienced.
Mayes portrayal of De Rocher is spot on authentic, down to his Cajun accent while singing his lines. Watching his journey progress to the self-realization (or acceptance) of his sins at the end of the opera is at times stunning.  Mayes truly understands this complex character and plays him perfectly.
Susanne Mentzer as De Rocher's Mother
But the focus of “Dead Man Walking” is not De Rocher’s journey, but rather the spiritual journey of Sister Helen.  We see immediately, as she is driving to the Penitentiary, the struggles she has with her faith, as she talks to herself… or God.  Indeed, I wondered how after witnessing such a horrific act, I could resolve those thoughts in my mind.
Later in the first act, we hear from De Rocher’s mother (Susanne Mentzer), who clearly does not believe or accept the charges against her son.  As she pleads her case, she is interrupted by the deceased girl’s father (Alan Dunbar) that not only had she been raped, but also stabbed 37 times in the neck, so badly that her senior pin was lost in the wounds.  We have the image of a sweet son juxtaposed against the image of a monster within seconds.  Sweet memories interrupted by unimaginable pain.
Alan Dunbar, Saira Frank, Jamie Van Eyck and J. Adam Shelton
And that is the thrust of this work.  How can the parents resolve the gruesome death of their children? Will De Rocher’s mother accept the fact her sweet son did in fact commit these crimes?  And all of this falls on the shoulders of Sister Helen, who at the end of the first act gets caught between the quartet of the grieving teens parents (along with Dunbar, played by Saira Frank, J. Adam Shelton and Jamie Van Eyck) and a solo by Mentzer, which soon turns into a sextet including Mack.  
Librettist Terrence McNally offers up some of the most heartbreaking lines as the parents sing about the last words said to their children, “shut the door,” so mundane but emotionally crushing.  This leads into a chorus of all the voices in Sister Helen’s head – all the contradicting emotions of all involved, leading to her being overcome as she falls to the floor.
A Chorus Of Conflict
And that was only the first act.
John DeMain’s masterful handling of Jake Heggie’s score is the backdrop of this powerful production. DeMain owns this score.  Jake Heggie, who was attending this performance, went so far as to embrace the Maestro before the beginning of the second act. The score is very Copland-esque, with a peppering of Louisiana twang.  This music is very powerful yet accessible, proving that American Opera can be mentioned in the same breath when compared to its traditional counterparts.
In the second act we see Mayes’ character prepare to die.  The only question is, will he give the Sister what she wants – what she knows will not only save him eternally, but also start the reconciliation process for all the victims connected to the crime.  His admission is what she seeks.  The truth is what will set everyone free and on the path to forgiveness and healing.
The night of the execution, the victim’s parents appear again to watch.  As they enter the chamber, the girl’s father stays back, and admits his truth to Sister Helen:  He looks in the mirror and doesn’t like what he sees, which is anger and grief.  He knows that De Rocher’s death will not bring his child back, and he understands at that moment the struggle he has within.  He understands his own truth, which is the sign that he is on his way to reconciliation.
The Beginning Of Sister Helen's Journey

We then get to that moment where everything stops:  De Rocher’s confession to Sister Helen.  That defining moment of extended silence, not often experienced in opera, may be the most powerful pause I have ever experienced.  As the truth is revealed, healing through forgiveness is started and the work concludes.
Bravo to Madison Opera for staging this groundbreaking production.    

Jeff Turk
Fresco Opera Theatre



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