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Opera Review

New Life for 'Walking'

Opera Pacific's production of Jake Heggie's opera, a year after it debuted in San Francisco, is more subtle and trusting and should have a long run.


"Dead Man Walking," Jake Heggie's opera, has legs. A year after its premiere by the San Francisco Opera, it has now received a second production by Opera Pacific, and Tuesday night the company easily sold out the house for the first of five performances at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. A live recording from San Francisco has recently been released by Erato. Opera companies in the U.S. and abroad are lining up to mount either the original or this new production.

It will take time, of course, to know just how long this opera's legs will be, but short is not a safe bet. Thus far, it has brought out the best in everyone involved in its performances. And Heggie's work, based upon the best-selling book by Sister Helen Prejean (upon which the film was also based), appears critic-proof. There is little doubt that Joseph De Rocher, a convicted rapist and murderer, will receive his fatal injection at the Louisiana State Prison a great many more times on stage and then return for a well-earned standing ovation.

"Dead Man Walking" confronts capital punishment. Prejean is a tireless opponent of the death penalty, and her book records the spiritual journey she undertook in acting as a spiritual advisor to De Rocher. Spiritual journeys are, of course, the business of opera, as are politics, sex and violence. Heggie, and his librettist, popular playwright Terrance McNally, have chosen their subject well.

Opera Pacific reveals just how well. Leonard Foglia's new production is less lavish than San Francisco's celebrated one, but it trusts the opera more and reminds one of the movie less. The Broadway director's first foray into opera was remarkably focused on the moment, moved with fluid grace and presented the drama with clarity. Michael McGarty's practical set did exactly what it needed to do in order to suggest locations without fully re-creating them and thus allowing the opera room for imagination. Jess Goldstein lighted it with care.

A second advantage to be found in Orange County is the taut, dramatically sophisticated conducting by the company's music director, John DeMain, who doesn't oversell the score's obvious dramatic devices.

And there is also the peculiar advantage of less star power. At the premiere, Susan Graham's emotive performance practically elevated Helen to the realm of a mythic character. This time, Kristine Jepson (who was an alternate in San Francisco) was more ordinary in the most human sense. Her moral dilemma was larger than her. Her need to understand, and forgive, De Rocher included a subtle, unvoiced undercurrent of sexual attraction, which made things all the more interesting. She has a natural, fresh mezzo-soprano voice that only enhanced her appeal.

Everything about this production and performance that was good--and that included John Packard and Frederica von Stade repeating their authoritative portrayals of De Rocher and his mother, along with many other fine performances--should supply confidence in Heggie's music.

Listening to the recording, examining the score and hearing an excellent performance from a new perspective changes some first impressions. I think the music is better, or at least more cannily crafted, than many of us found it on first hearing. Heggie relies on simplistic devices, such as a five-note Bernsteinian riff for De Rocher and a spiritual tune he invents for Sister Helen. Everything sounds familiar and is used in obvious ways that skirt a middle ground between old-fashioned operatic models and feature-film developmental devices.

Heggie has the kind of sentimental popular touch that can't be learned or faked. And the real genius of this opera is that, in its quest to be loved, it makes love, not killing and not spiritual enlightenment, its center. We feel sympathy for De Rocher, and we also understand that he has to die. The operatic Sister Helen, dispensing of love left and right, triumphs.

The political slope to not take sides, though, is slippery, and there was a lot of slipping and sliding Tuesday to justify a feel-good opera about capital punishment. Heggie has the real Helen Prejean's approval, and he brought her out to take a bow. In the program booklet, a page about Prejean's Moratorium Campaign was carefully worded to disguise the nun's position--but sign on to her Web site, www.moratoriumcampaign .org, and get the real story.

OCPAC moreover restricted moratorium petitioners to a point far enough away from the entrance of the auditorium that only those opera attendees who parked illegally in the shopping mall across the street would encounter them. Meanwhile, I'm still trying to figure out for whom Opera Pacific's tasteless "Dead Man Walking" T-shirt might be intended. Sales did not seem brisk Tuesday. But ticket sales are certainly no problem.

"Dead Man Walking" repeats tonight, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. (with Theodora Hanslowe singing the role of Sister Helen on Friday and Sunday); $25-$175; Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa; (800) 34-OPERA.

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