MET Opera House building–Lincoln Center/Tuesday September 26th, 2023. Opening Night.
This week, friends, welcome to the MET Opera’s thrilling Opening Night, always a truly iconic New York evening, which the audience gets super dressed for, and even gets to perform for as well (of course, for those who are so inclined to do so, and fortunately, there are many), accompanied by the MET Opera orchestra, before the start of the performance, once inside the theater.
So believe it or not, but the MET Opera audience gets (for those who feel like it), to sing joyfully, and with verve, the United States national anthem, the “Star-Spangled Banner”, as a way of celebrating the new upcoming season at the MET Opera!
And as this is a special “kick off” evening, works chosen by the MET Opera are always spectacular.
So welcome to a particularly original, harrowing, dark, yet also at times, thankfully also, filled with light, contemporary moral and philosophical, multi media, musical drama, vs classic opera including “arias”, welcome to an American opera theater, instead of classic opera.
And last Tuesday, the work presented depicted often highly complex and emotional portraits of characters, set to incredibly beautiful music, including at times as well, contemporary, timeless, gospel and rock and roll songs (including by Elvis Presley).
Yay and wow!
So welcome to a haunting drama like no other, adapted from a heartfelt memoir by Sister Helen Prejean, in which we discover her introduction to the world of capital punishment, as a spiritual advisor, and her questions around the value and morality of the death penalty.
Welcome to Jake Heggie (b. 1961), and his hair raising, (from 2000), “Dead Man Walking” opera theater.
So what is “Dead Man Walking” about?
This 2 acts “opera theater” is a portrayal of the complexity of human nature in the face of unbearable drama: It about Sister Helen Prejean, a Louisiana nun who is about to become the spiritual advisor to Joseph De Rocher, a convicted rapist and murderer on death row.
“Dead Man Walking” depicts their “journey” together, as she accompanies him to his execution.
Let’s take a quick look, and listen to a short musical and photo shoot excerpt of Heggie’s unusual and compelling opera theater : “Dead Man Walking”:
Let’s get back to the story:
Sister Helen, along the way, will of course face a number of exceptional emotions which all characters are feeling: the overwhelming raw and crude anger, the loss, the grief, and at times, the humanity exuding from everyone: from the victims families, the maximum security facility staff, to her own fears, missteps, and fragilities; and of course, in addition, and very importantly, Sister Helen will get to also face the hardened criminal (Joseph De Rocher) himself, who yet, and gradually, under Sister Helen’s guidance, will finally in the end, confess to his crimes, ask for forgiveness, enabling him, to face death with dignity, despite his monstrous acts of unspeakable violence, as Sister Helen offers him to be “the face of love”, when he will be executed via a lethal infection.
She will eventually sing, after his death, one last religious hymn in the execution chamber.
Let’s listen to a very short excerpt of this last heartbreaking hymn, sang in rehearsal by DiDonato:
So gentle and incredibly moving.
So in a nutshell, “Dead Man Walking” is a very emotionally and morally charged story, based on true events, and an incredible theater piece, which profoundly moved the very focused MET Opera audience last Tuesday.
And to me, the reason it resonated so strongly with the audience, is not only because one has to think about the idea of capital punishment, which is already a huge moral and legal topic, but its strong relevance and emotional depth to me, are even more related to the vibrant and gripping descriptions of the joys and pains of family life, which often also, overflow with unconditional and heartwarming love.
And the music, the singing, the acting, and as equally important, the exceptionally astounding, wonderful, at times, humorous, amazingly well written, modern, deep, profond libretto by late and critically acclaimed playwrite, Terrence Mc Nally (1938-2020), as well of course, as the production, all, enhanced with great panache, the complex, dark and light emotions displayed.
What to say about the production itself?
That Ivo van Hove’s “vérité” like, minimalist, multimedia, “in your face”, acclaimed production, set in contemporary times, deepened these raw feelings. And I really liked it.
I also thought that choosing from the get-go, to tell the initial brutal crimes through a short and beautifully shot film (vs seeing it on stage), immediately set an even darker and icier tone, before discovering immediately after, and with great relief, on stage, finally, the good hearted, compassionate nun (Sister Helen), teaching with a few others (nuns), a soulful hymn to a group of children: what a brilliant, contrasting, compelling and unusual juxtaposition, which immediately engaged with great poignancy, the Met Opera audience.
I also particularly liked, as the story moved along, the presence of “on stage” camera operators artfully capturing, either slow motioned angry mob movements from the prison inmates, or close ups of Sister Helen and Joseph De Rocher’s faces at times, to read with even more accuracy and immediacy their feelings.
What to say of the conductor and performers?
That all of them, including the chorus of prisoners, were, as was the orchestra, wonderfully conducted, with great energy, talent, and care, under Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s masterful baton.
And three singers, particularly stood out for me:
First, American mezzo soprano, and singing the role of Sister Helen Prejean, Joyce DiDonato, was absolutely breathtaking: such reserve, such precise and great acting, such beautiful singing, depth, and great compassion, all exude from her, effortlessly.
Second, in the terrifying role of the death row rapist and murderer Joseph De Rocher, clear sounding, resolute, strong, American bass baritone, Ryan Mc Kinny was exceptional, as the hardened, brutal and much later in the story/drama, softened and contrite criminal.
Third, American mezzo soprano, Susan Graham, as Mrs Patrick De Rocher, was fabulous, and totally believable as a heartbroken, loving mother.
So, to sum up my feelings, about Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking”, admired last Tuesday, at the MET Opera’s Opening Night, in great company: what a tragic, gruesome modern story, filled with moments of deeply moving humanity and love, set to stunning music, and incredibly well performed by all. More theater-like than operatic, but who cares, what an extraordinary piece of drama, this is. And how spectacular are the two main characters: DiDonato, as the formidable, strong hearted, and forgiving spiritual advisor “Sister Helen”, shines incredibly brightly, and what a moving and yet terribly scary “Joseph”, Mc Kinny embodies perfectly. And finally, what a powerful, multimedia, modern and minimalist van Hove production, allowing us to experience with great realism and even stronger emotions this dark, contemporary tale, which also fortunately, at times, is also filled with redemptive light.
And not to be missed!
Until next time friends!
Eternal butterflies 😊