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Dead Man Walking makes its gut-punching Lyric debut

It took nearly 20 years for composer Jake Heggie and librettist Terrence McNally’s powerhouse of an opera, Dead Man Walking, to make it to Lyric Opera of Chicago. In the interim, it’s been Chicago Opera Theater that gave us a chance to see any of Heggie’s work, including last spring’s Moby-Dick and 2010’s Three Decembers. So, it’s about time, Lyric. And this gut-punching production, directed by Leonard Foglia (and almost as old as the opera), is not to be missed.

The story, adapted from the best-selling 1993 nonfiction book of the same title by Sister Helen Prejean and best known through its 1995 film adaptation (with Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn), follows the nun’s journey from naive pen pal to anti-death-penalty activist. As ably sung by soprano Patricia Racette, she struggles to come to terms with the monstrosity of a death row inmate’s crime, the very human connection she makes with him, and the insistence of her faith that he’s redeemable. “If you want to help him, you have to forgive him,” is what her friend, Sister Rose, richly sung by Ryan Opera Center alum Whitney Morrison, tells her.

The convict, Joseph De Rocher—a composite of several real inmates Prejean counseled—raped a terrified 17-year-old girl in a lovers’ lane attack in which her boyfriend was also killed, and then knifed her to death, slashing her more than 30 times. There’s no doubt about his guilt: the attack is the opening scene of the opera. But in prison, as the date of his execution approaches, De Rocher—a killer punk thoroughly channeled by bass-baritone Ryan McKinney—enjoys his cigarettes and tries to blame his brother.

This is a highly effective piece of advocacy art—not, as has been suggested, a balanced portrayal of complexities around the death penalty. The victims’ parents are allowed to protest, but the victims themselves have no words. They appear only in the scene of their demise and only in the nude. Nudity in theater has impact, but it’s distracting; in this staging, it distracts from the brutality of the crime.

Heggie’s vocal writing is mostly a sort of tuneful recitative, hinting of New Orleans jazz and blues and interspersed with some actual, gospel-style song. Along with a melodic and expressive orchestral score and powerful use of silence, sound effects, and spoken voice, it serves McNally’s masterful drama well. Nicole Paiement conducts; the entire cast is excellent, and includes, among many compelling reasons to take in this production, veteran mezzo- soprano Susan Graham (who was the original Sister Helen, two decades ago) as the mother of the condemned murderer. Her performance—superbly sung and utterly, devastatingly convincing—is a peak opera-going experience.  v

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