Powerful, deeply moving Dead Man Walking poses hard questions

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      By Jake Heggie. Libretto by Terrence McNally. A Vancouver Opera Festival production. At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Saturday, April 29. Continues until May 7

      Anyone who doubts that opera can speak to the here and now needs to see the powerful new production of Dead Man Walking, which quickly established itself as the must-see at the city's newest festival last night.

      There's an honesty and immediacy here that you don't often get at a night at the opera. The orchestra, performers, and designers have struck just the right balance of humanity, emotion, and bold design, building to a finale that left many in the audience tearing up as they rose for a heartfelt standing O. On opening night, the appearance of composer Jake Heggie bringing real-life anti-capital-punishment activist Sister Helen Prejean on-stage for the curtain call heightened the experience.

      For the success of this mounting, you have to start with Heggie and Terrence McNally's complex but accessible score and lyrics. The opera weaves American music like gospel, rock, and jazz into the orchestrations, but also employs a taut, direct vernacular. The story takes place in Louisiana, largely on its infamous Angola death row, and its characters—especially murder convict Joseph De Rocher (a composite of two real-life prisoners)—often show their working-class, Deep South roots. ("Have some respect; she's a fuckin' nun," the guards drawl at the rowdy prisoners at one point.) It also refuses to preach, simply laying out all the emotions around capital punishment. 

      Next you must move on to the two leads. J'Nai Bridges brings warmth, strength, and biting humour to Sister Helen, guiding us into death row as she discovers it for the first time as Joseph's spiritual adviser. She finds complexity here, not just depicting a pious bride of Christ—someone we could never relate to—but showing the full colours of the feisty, sympathetic realist who wrote the book of the same name. ("I don't like him," she sings of the prison's Father Grenville that greets her; "Neither do I," admits the warden.) Her crisis of conscience when facing the ire of the murder victims' parents is palpable: in one dramatic scene, we watch her cringe as the mothers accuse her of not understanding what it's like to bear a child, the fathers charging her with helping a monster. Bridges is blessed with a rich, clear, yet often sultry-as-Louisiana-summer mezzo that scales easily into the higher register and finds all the shading of the score's jazzier lilts.

      As for the "Dead Man" himself, Canadian bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch wears the role as naturally as the jailhouse tattoos that cover his arms and legs, easily blending the character's good-ol'-boy drawl with the score's operatic demands. The brilliance here is his pain never feels melodramatic, and he never tries to make his character sympathetic. Helped by the taut libretto, he shows a tough-guy exterior but also the self-loathing that nags underneath. ("I'm a scrawny SOB ain't I.") In one of the feats in a highly physical performance, he works out Joseph's anger through pushups—while singing.

      J'Nai Bridges and Daniel Okulitch

      Some of the night's most affecting moments also come courtesy of Judith Forst as Joseph's frail but devoted mother, her mezzo in rich, luminescent form, fully internalizing the struggle she faces as the mother of a murderer, but a mother nonetheless. Her spellbinding, repeated plea of "Haven't we suffered enough" echoes over the entire show.

      The smaller parts are strong across the board, from Karen Slack's earthy Sister Rose to Thomas Goerz's rage-racked parent.

      In the second act, Heggie also employs the chorus to stirring effect, most touchingly with the return of the children Helen works with at a Catholic charity. They're not really there, in the hell of death row, but they're ever-present in Prejean's mind, echoing with the adult voices in her conscience—and as society's conscience in the devastating, hauntingly orchestrated final scene, in which the lethal-injection gurney inevitably resembles a white crucifix.

      Matching the intensity of the performances is Erhard Rom's artful design. When you first enter the theatre, it looks like there is a grey, projected still of a jailhouse with two watchtowers on the scrim in front of you. But look closely, and you'll see the lit watchtowers have moving guards, one with a glowing red cigarette. Those two monoliths stand ominously on either side of the stage, used to inventive effect—underscoring the surveillance that goes on, not just by guards, but by others, too, including the ghosts of two dead teenagers. There's more: a clever rectangle of action that opens and closes at the upper middle of the stage, revealing convicts behind chainlink, or the long grey corridor of the final walk; and the tiny windowed room where Joseph meets with Sister Helen, one that rolls out of the larger prison construct and emphasizes how small his world has become. 

      Conductor Jonathan Darlington and director Joel Ivany keep it all moving at a fast clip—often helped by recurring projected video of prison bars rolling like the "railroad track to hell" Joseph speaks of. Only Prejean's long hot drive to Angola seems to drag.

      It's thought-provoking stuff, a tale of the death penalty that takes place in the U.S. but which turns universal in its ideas about punishment ("I hope my death brings you some peace") and our ability to forgive even the unforgivable. Prepare to ask yourself some hard questions. And bring some Kleenex.

      Tim Matheson