Miami Music Festival delivers a riveting “Dead Man Walking” in South Florida premiere

By David Fleshler

Erin Alford and Joel Balzun star in Jake Heggi'es "Dead Man Walking" at Miami Music Festival Friday night. Photo: Kristen Pulido

Erin Alford and Joel Balzun star in Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking” at Miami Music Festival Friday night. Photo: Kristen Pulido

The Miami Music Festival, which just gave South Florida a rare concert of Wagner, continues to enrich the region’s musical life.

The festival mounted a grippingly effective performance Thursday of Dead Man Walking. The Jake Heggie opera has become one of the most-performed American operas since its 2000 debut in San Francisco, and is being presented in its South Florida premiere.

The simple sets, with stark projections of telephone poles and barbed wire on the stage at Barry University’s Shepard & Ruth K. Broad Performing Arts Center in Miami Shores, set the tone for what would be a grim, if absorbing, evening of musical drama. The opera, which will be repeated Saturday with a different cast, was performed with the composer in the audience.

The work is based on the memoirs of Sister Helen Prejean, a Louisiana nun who became spiritual adviser to several condemned murderers and whose book inspired the 1995 film directed by Tim Robbins.

Taking place in the weeks leading up to the execution of convicted murderer Joseph De Rocher, the opera deal with Sister Prejean’s struggles as she tries to prepare De Rocher to meet his fate. There is a scene before the state pardon board and a last-minute appeal to the governor, but there is never much doubt that De Rocher was headed for the death chamber. 

The opera’s primary suspense concerns whether he would finally confess and apologize to the families of the two murdered teenagers and whether Sister Helen would have the strength and spiritual force to help him through the awful days and hours before he was strapped to the gurney.

The libretto was written by the Tony award-winning playwright Terrence McNally, a true opera aficionado who can write clipped dialogue that established character in a few words and soaring speeches that gave scope to the composer’s lyric gift. It does nothing to denigrate Heggie’s music to say that this is one of the few opera librettos that could stand on its own as a play, with a little surgery here and there.

The music is deeply respectful of the text, allowing the words to come through without much need for the supertitles projected over the stage. At crucial points, Heggie allowed the words and action to proceed without music, an act of compositional modesty that yielded powerful dramatic results.

Heggie composed a versatile score that appeared to draw on a century of American music, from blues through the more tonal of the nation’s composers. There were menacing riffs in brass and fearful chords in woodwinds as Sister Helen faced the realities of Louisiana’s state prison. Eerie dissonances in strings accompanied De Rocher’s description of the murders. Long, lyric vocal lines gave the opportunity for lush textures in female voices. He made persuasive use of percussion, from ominous tapping on xylophone to thumping attacks in the timpani.

The music supported the stage action effectively, without always being memorable on its own. There are moments, such as a pair of big choruses, where the volume and passion seemed to call for more compelling melody and harmonic complexity. But this is an opera in which words were at least equally important, and Heggie’s assured sense of theater served the drama well.

Erin Alford drew a rounded and human portrait of the saintly Sister Helen, who works in a housing project school. The mezzo soprano conveyed the doubts, humor, fear and vulnerability beneath the nun’s prim appearance and devout sensibility. In a church-bell-clear, voice, she expressed her spiritual agitation as she pleaded for strength in approaching the prison and sang radiant words of comfort to the condemned man. As they bonded, sharing their love for Elvis Presley, he seemed less like a killer and she seemed less like a nun.

As De Rocher, the baritone Joel Balzun was the portrait of the slovenly, scary Death Row inmate, with shackles, tattoos and an exposed undershirt. With a stentorian voice, he managed his character’s transformation from the face of criminal menace glaring from the newspaper photos to a portrait of raw humanity, filled with fear, guilt and a wisp of hope that something could transform his life this late in the game.

Mezzo-soprano Lauren Frick made the most of the role of De Rocher’s mother, a role created by Frederica von Stade. Appearing before the pardon board, fumbling with her purse and unsure how to use the microphone, she found her voice and delivered a plea for her son’s life that was moving in its description of the difficulties of their lives and the pathetically small things she treasured. She told the board of the “genuine tortoise-shell” comb made in Japan that he gave her for Mother’s Day, saying, ” A boy who is all bad does not give his mother something like this.”

As Sister Rose, soprano Gina Hanzlik was convincing as a concerned friend of Sister Helen and brought a bright, warm voice to their second act duet.

As the four parents of the murdered teenagers, Robert Turnage, Samantha Lax, Kristin Fahning and Tyler Koch expressed grief for their children and anger at Sister Helen for reserving most of her compassion for the murderer, yet never descended into stock characters. Koch, given a larger role than the others, brought out the turmoil and conflicted emotions beneath the surface, as he wondered what De Rocher’s death would accomplish.

The student orchestra, under conductor Bradley Moore, gave a taut performance that forcefully brought the score to life. Although the orchestra’s playing wasn’t flawless, the vivid, committed playing compellingly supported the action on stage.

Under the stage direction of David Carl Toulson, the naturalistic performances brought out the production’s dour realism. The production made the most of a modest budget. Scene designer Yee Eun Nam, projection designer Yuki Izumihara and lighting designer Ronald Burns assembled an effective use of the materials at hand, with projected backdrops and a few props, such as racks of bars for prison cells, being sufficient to establish each scene.

Other roles were well handled, including Marcus Schenck as the warden and surprisingly sympathetic face of the prison bureaucracy, Mark Tempesta as the deep-voiced prison chaplain warden trying to warn Sister Helen off a hopeless mission and Benjamin Croen as a police officer bemused to discover that he’d pulled over a nun for speeding.

Dead Man Walking will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday, with Kaitlyn McMonigle as Sister Helen, Eric Vinas as De Rocher, Pauline ‘Ofa Vaitafa as his mother and Naomi Grace Worley as Sister Rose.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Miami Music Festival delivers a riveting “Dead Man Walking” in South Florida premiere”

  1. Posted Jul 29, 2017 at 2:06 am by Kristine Koch Sinacola

    Tyler Koch knock them dead. Have a great time with it

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Fri Jul 28, 2017
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