Operagasm Exclusive Review: Central City Opera’s Dead Man Walking
by Tracy Kaufman
It is unfortunately the norm today where many opera houses present productions of more risqué subject matter with over-inflated gesture or plain ol’ bad acting. Not so this afternoon. From the first wordless foreboding moments to the raw, visceral shock of rape and murder seemingly at arm’s length, the audience readily suspended disbelief and we were strapped in and set for the ride of this outstanding production.
So much dense emotion, along with subtle atmospheric lighting, amply filled the playing space without excess clutter. The sparse sets of a single chair and platforms, the warden’s lone desk, or overlapping barbed wire topped chain link fences easily transformed during smooth transitions to keep up the pacing.
Ken Cazan elicited such authentic characterizations from his singers allowing for proper moments to ‘stand and deliver’ as well as impressive and oppressive full ensemble stage pictures, particularly in the Act I and II finales, to completely transport the viewer. Heggie’s score speaks volumes on its own, employing strains of Gershwin-reminiscent jazz and blues, or angular lines punctuating speech-like declamation. It was all expertly delivered with effective momentum under the baton of John Baril. Each act culminated in a multi-multi-layered wall of sound (made more palpable in the intimate Central City Opera House) which was enough to rock every cell of my being.
Following the intensity of the opening scene, the action shifts to Sister Helen Prejean and her group of children in poor, rural Louisiana. This bunch was enthusiastic if 99% monochromatically pale.
As Sister Helen Prejean, Jennifer Rivera’s poignantly floated pianissimi were too few to counterbalance the often incongruous facial expressions and extraneous movement that detracted from the gravity of her scenes. Thank goodness the highway patrolman pulled her over on the way to the Angola prison because, while constantly jerking the wheel back and forth, I was seriously afraid she might run herself off the road.
Even without the scary tattoos, Michael Mayes portrayed Joseph De Rocher as physically and vocally imposing and ominous. Though I couldn’t keep from wondering, is De Rocher Creole or was he adopted? His mother and half-brothers seemed to be lacking the sometime hints of Creole accent flavoring his diction and delivery.
Oh how I wish Jeanine De Bique had more to sing in this opera. Her genuine, unaffected Sister Rose was further complimented by a lush and inviting instrument of brilliant clarity.
Robert Orth, as Owen Hart, the grieving father of the murdered teenage girl, held the distinction of unleashing the first heart wrenching outburst of the production. …also setting off the struggle to maintain my well-applied eye makeup…
Maria Zifchak, as Mrs. Patrick De Rocher, presented a delicately conflicted and afflicted mother of a murderer. With impressive vocal presence and aching tone she plaintively inquired, “Haven’t we all suffered enough?” And truly, if we keep pouring more suffering into the world, will it ever help?
Jake Heggie and Terrance McNally take Sister Helen Prejean’s life altering tale and challenge us to face a number of dilemmas: how do we forgive following a gruesome crime; how can our society reverse a callousness to death; and how do we see the good in people, and help them see it themselves, before it is too late?
The trial faced by Joseph De Rocher in Central City’s brilliantly nuanced piece of performance art, along with those of Sister Helen, the parents of the murdered young couple, and De Rocher’s family, begs its audience to navigate the murky depths of morality, human suffering, forgiveness, and death. My personal trial was to keep my mascara from escaping in streams down my face; those tears flat out refused to cooperate. I left morally contemplative and emotionally rung out. This is my kind of operatic experience.
Tracy Kaufman is a mezzo-soprano, voice teacher, actor, and sustainable living and nutrition enthusiast. Most recently, she has been performing in New Jersey and Northern Colorado and is accepting new students by Skype or in the Denver, Colorado area. Connect with Tracy via her website, tracykaufman.com