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Dead Man Walking

Botched executions, suppressed evidence, and religious and spiritual beliefs, as well as dysfunctional and devolved political and socio-economic systems all continue to make capital punishment an ongoing hot button.

Michael Mayes as Joseph De Rocher
Michael Mayes as Joseph De Rocher
Photo: Mark Kiryluk
In Jake Heggie (music) and Terrence McNally's (libretto) operatic adaptation of the novel (based on actual events) of the same name by Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ, we follow the evolving relationship between Sister Helen and convicted murderer Joseph De Rocher, made famous by Tim Robbins' 1995 film version, for which both Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn were nominated for Oscars (she won).

The story opens with a flashback to the actual murder, tastefully presented in silhouettes and muted lighting, while Sister Helen sits in a chair, attempting to piece it together in her mind; then, we flash forward to the present, when the correspondence between Sister Helen and De Rocher begins.

Left to right: Robert Orth as Owen Hart, Jennifer Rivera as Sister Helen Prejean, and Maria Zifchak as Mrs. Patrick De Rocher
L to R: Robert Orth as Owen Hart,
Jennifer Rivera as Sister Helen Prejean,
and Maria Zifchak as Mrs. Patrick De Rocher
Photo: Kira Horvath
The story is filled with conflicts: the families of the victims versus Sister Helen, the prison chaplain versus Sr. Helen, De Rocher versus Sr. Helen, and the protesters at the execution, plus the conflicts within Sr. Helen, De Rocher, and Owen Hart, the father of the female victim. In the theatre of ideas, however, all these conflicts can be boiled down to the question of how to respond to murder; that is: Are we to follow spiritual precepts, in this case what Sr. Helen sees as the teachings of Jesus regarding forgiveness, or are we to seek "an eye for an eye," the endless cycle of revenge?

The gripping interplay of Sr. Helen (Jennifer Rivera) and Joseph De Rocher (Michael Mayes) drives our emotions throughout, despite the challenges of Heggie and McNally's recitative approach, with the prose delivered a cappella and, for the most part, without any melody (save for Heggie's stunning spiritual, "He will gather us around"), while the orchestra delivers the subtext via dynamic atmospherics. As events heat up in Act II, the distraction of this approach dissipates.

Michael Mayes as Joseph De Rocher and Jennifer Rivera as Sister Helen Prejean
Michael Mayes as Joseph De Rocher
and Jennifer Rivera as Sister Helen Prejean
Photo: Kira Horvath
Mezzo-soprano Rivera is a wonder as Sr. Helen, conveying the effects of the extreme societal and internal pressures brought to bear, while Mayes artfully navigates the seemingly irredeemable De Rocher into humane waters. Together, their emotional evolution leads to a riveting catharsis, moments before the paralyzing climax and hopeful denouement.

Maria Zifchak, as the long-suffering and down-to-earth Mrs. De Rocher, Joseph's mother, and Robert Orth, as Owen Hart, add immeasurable depth to the dramatic arc. Strong performances as well from Jeanine De Bique (Sister Rose), Thomas Hammons (George Benton, Wardon), and Jason Baldwin (Father Grenville). McNally's script also provides a number of humorous moments, including our favorites: when the Motorcycle Cop (John David Nevergall) stops Sr. Helen for speeding, and when De Rocher and Sr. Helen discuss Elvis Presley.

Michael Mayes as Joseph De Rocher
Michael Mayes as Joseph De Rocher
Photo: Kira Horvath
Ken Cazan's evocative and efficient staging, John Baril and the festival orchestra's spirited and well-shaded palette, and the Colorado Children's Chorale underscore the emotional punch.

Central City Opera's production of Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking runs in repertory with Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro through July 25th, followed by the Denver production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music, through August 10th. For tickets: 303-292-6700 or centralcityopera.org.

Bob Bows

 

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