Operatic villains come in many guises, but Joseph de Rocher, Jake Heggie and Terence McNally’s “dead man walking”, is surely in a league of his own: a convicted rapist and murderer, a coarse, swaggering brute of a man. Even on Death Row, Joe clings to the one thing he can control: refusing to admit his guilt, denying the justice system and his victims’ parents the satisfaction of knowing for sure that they have got their man.
There are strong contributions from everyone in a big cast. Two of the supporting roles stand out: James Creswell is strong and nuanced as the prison warden, Maria Zifchak is heartbreaking as Joe’s mother. All are helped by the quality of Heggie’s vocal writing: his music fits each voice like a finely tailored glove. There are vocal challenges, for sure – you couldn’t sing this without having a full range of operatic skills – but his vocal lines use those skills to achieve emotional effect without ever trying to impress you with the degree of difficulty. Every line flows naturally from the type of voice and the characterisation.
The score of Dead Man Walking has an awful lot of tutti and an awful lot of big string writing, augmented by brass en masse rather than as individuals. It’s lovely to listen to a score which is inventive and full or interest while being tonal, at the same time as being modern in its ability to draw from many musical idioms (gospel being the one that’s obviously appropriate to the story, with vintage rock’n’roll putting in the occasional appearance). But although Mark Wigglesworth and the BBC Symphony Orchestra conjured plenty of power and impact from the louder passages, the subtlety of the piece – of which there was a great deal – was coming from the voices, not the orchestra. And that includes both choruses: the BBC Singers were chilling in their impersonation of the jeering prisoners; the Finchley Children’s Music Group providing the contrasting sweetness and light of the convent’s young charges. Leonard Foglia’s adaptation of his full staging for the concert platform was highly effective, with costumes and a few props perfectly able to place you in the action.
But the main point of this opera is to make you think – about crime, punishment, forgiveness, redemption. McNally’s libretto is perfectly paced, and the opera asks more questions than it answers: can we really forgive such appalling crimes? Does it matter if the criminal repents? Even if that repentance only happens in the face of death? What part should vengeance play? The opera forces you to consider your own feelings: it nudges you in the direction of the Christian view that true repentance is the only thing that matters for salvation, but that’s not shoved down your throat.
Given that Dead Man Walking is 18 years old and has met with huge success elsewhere, it’s astonishing that this was its UK première, and it’s a pity that there was only this one performance. Let’s hope there are more soon: it’s a work of intense music drama that deserves to be heard.