Jake Heggie, DEAD MAN WALKING, J’Nai Bridges (Sister Helen Prejean), Daniel Okulitch (Joseph De Rocher), Judith Forst (Mrs. Patrick De Rocher), Karen Slack (Sister Rose), (Charles Robert Austin (George Benton), J. Patrick Raftery (Father Grenville), Karen Ydenberg (Kitty Hart), Thomas Goerz (Owen Hart), Emma Parkinson (Jade Boucher), Michael Barrett (Howard Boucher), and others. Vancouver Opera Orchestra, Jonathan Darlington (Conductor), Vancouver Opera Chorus, Kinza Tyrrell (Director), Erhard Rom (Set and Design), Joel Ivany (Director). Playhouse, May 7, 2017.

 All Photos by Tim Matheson

All Photos by Tim Matheson

If you’re trying to attract your audience to contemporary opera, you may as well choose a hit. This is what Vancouver Opera has done with Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, a show with nearly 300 performances on five continents to its credit. It’s no surprise why. Its subject is crucial to us today or any day—the role of forgiveness in the face of transgression—and is conveyed by a story and music of considerable power.

Dead Man Walking tells of a man on death row, whose guilt for a horrendous rape and murder is never in doubt. The question then becomes: what do you do with such a man? If you are the parents of the murdered youth, you opt for institutionalized vengeance, which we call justice. If you are the nun acting as his spiritual advisor, you opt for forgiveness of a crime that needs to be acknowledged. If you are the condemned man, you finally admit your guilt and express remorse. A heavy subject, one with no clear answers.

It makes for an opera of real impact, one with a compelling multi-strand movement toward redemption: that of the condemned toward acknowledging his transgression and of the nun toward forgiveness. The movement of the parents is not so clear, though one of them finally concedes that the death of the guilty will not bring back the victim. Except for the message of redemption cast in Christian terms—no surprise in a work originally written by a nun—it is a bleak story with no winners. Perhaps as important as the redemption is the love that develops between the nun and the convict, though it’s never clear whether this is a manifestation of Eros or agape, or of both.

The score is strong, the orchestration rich, with hints of Britten, Gershwin, gospel and rock, all well digested and forming a distinct and attractive style, conveyed well by Maestro Darlington and the Vancouver Opera Orchestra. The vocal writing very much follows the intonations of English speech, being quite syllabic in an opera that relies on one-on-one encounters. While not always making for beautiful sound, such writing well serves the story—which is rather the point of an operatic score. This meant, however, that when a more ‘operatic’ discourse was in evidence—as in the concertato concluding Act 1—the effect could be a trifle jarring. Overall, however, the score proved attractive, and would not scare off any neophyte coming to see what new opera is all about.

The cast was excellent. J’Nai Bridges sang and acted convincingly as Sister Helen, her rich mezzo voice expressing well the many moods she was called upon to portray. Perhaps her best number was the gospel ‘He will gather us around’, which became a moving leitmotif throughout the opera. Daniel Okulitch performed with consummate vocal artistry and charismatic acting. His paean to women in Act 1 was beautifully done, making sensuous use of his mellifluous base baritone. Outstanding was Judith Forst as Joseph De Rocher’s mother, making her Act 1 claim that her son is not a bad boy a highlight of the show. Karen Slack as Sister Rose was also exceptional, with a ringing soprano voice and a strong presence in her acting. A notable number was the Act 2 duet with Sister Helen, where they sing movingly on the nature of forgiveness.  

The direction of Joel Ivany was first-rate, natural and well supported by the set of Erhart Rom, flexibly converting his high set for Otello to the needs of this opera, particularly the prison. The set was fluid, shifting easily to form various spaces, and in accommodation of the excellent projections—all making for a powerful and attractive production, a successful addition to the triptych of operas presented by Vancouver Opera in its impressive first festival.


© Harvey DeRoo 2017