Sunday, March 12, 2006

My First Live Opera

I'd always imagined my first live opera would be Rossini, Mozart, Verdi, Wagner-- perhaps Berg or Messiaen. Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would be Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking, and when The Hulk called in January asking if I were interested I made some sarcastic remark along the lines of "Sure! Then the following week we can see Driving Miss Daisy the Opera."

The Lyric's production involved me entirely from start to finish. Yeah, I know the story, and I've run myself through many mind-spinning speculations about capital punishment and how fervent my opposition would be to state-sanctioned murder were I to lose a loved one to a senseless killing. I'd seen the film with Penn's gut-wrenching performance. But something more primal emerged with the confluence of live stage performance and anxious modern classical music. At the climax of the first act Helen Prejean is in the middle of a layered set full of prison mesh and bars, tormented by chanting representatives of public opinion, by victims' families, by death row inmates, by guards and wardens and a priest, by her own growing doubts about her faith and her mission. The orchestra swells, the volcanic chorus grows to dizzying heights, and I was buffeted and exhausted when she collapsed and the curtain dropped.

I found Theodora Hanslowe's Helen a bit weak vocally--she seemed to disappear when others sang simultaneously, and it struck me as odd that the least powerful singer on the cast would take the lead role. She certainly can sing but I could at times barely hear her. Perhaps the intention was to accent her meakness, her lack of confidence, her sincerity? Everyone else was electrifying, particularly Diana Soviero as the killer's mother. The cast who sang the victims' parents were crushing; the scene where the female victim's father confronts Mrs. De Rocher at Joe's funeral? AWEsome. Heggie--about whom I was totally unfamiliar until last night--has written a great piece of American music.

We even had the bonus luxury of a curtain call by the composer and Sister Helen Prejean in the flesh.

Poor Cha--she HATES modern classical music with a steely revulsion, and sat through 2.5 hours' worth last night! She talked me into going, however, after Virginia Monologues scored some cheap last-minute tickets.

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