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BWW Review: Washington National Opera Presents Bold and Haunting DEAD MAN WALKING at the Kennedy Center

BWW Review: Washington National Opera Presents Bold and Haunting DEAD MAN WALKING at the Kennedy Center

Rooted in the moral conflict between society's thirst for justice and Christianity's tenet of forgiveness, the modern American opera DEAD MAN WALKING is an apt selection for the Washington National Opera this season. With a moving score by Jake Heggie and an honest, straightforward libretto by Terrence McNally, it is based on Sister Helen Prejean's 1993 memoir of her work as a spiritual advisor to death row inmates, including one in particular, Joseph De Rocher. The Kennedy Center production directed by Francesca Zambello marks the 50th international production of DEAD MAN WALKING, and it's a bold and haunting one.

Convicted of rape and murder, death row inmate De Rocher (Michael Mayes) insists on his innocence and refuses to apologize to the families of his victims. Sister Helen (Kate Lindsey) serves as his spiritual advisor and struggles to forgive him for his crimes. Much of the action revolves around the inner conflicts of these two characters and the push-pull between the two, as De Rocher will not admit his guilt and Sister Helen tries to coax him into a place of redemption and peace.

The opera's depiction of violence is as unfaltering as its dialogue, opening on the scene of the crime. From there, Act I is slow but intellectually stimulating as it assembles the pieces of the predicament, while Act II flies breathlessly as the clock spins faster towards De Rocher's inevitable demise. The operatic drama contrasts with the spare set (Allen Moyer), the emotional turmoil expanding infinitely past the sterile surroundings of the prison. The effect is bold and unsettling.

Mayes is excellent in his signature role of De Rocher, acting as a physical manifestation of the challenge facing Sister Helen: how to find the humanity in someone who appears to feel no remorse? Mayes' baritone paints De Rocher as harsh and unrefined, with unexpected tenderness bubbling up under the brashness in pivotal moments. By contrast, Lindsey is a lovely Sister Helen, her mezzo-soprano voice and expressive movements balancing the hopefulness of youth with the exhaustion of a winless situation. She brims with authenticity and avoids being overly saccharine - important when portraying a nun who is real and imperfect.

Another star is mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, who originated the role of Sister Helen in the opera's world premiere and returns here as Joseph's mother, Mrs. De Rocher. Mrs. De Rocher fights for the recognition of her son's innate goodness, and her desperate plea for her son at the pardon board hearing steals the show. Graham, dressed in the trappings of the typical mom (costume design by Jessica Jahn), transcends the limitations of the character's appearance and externalizes what she feels.

The victims' parents are, of course, adamantly against Sister Helen for her compassion for someone they can only see as evil. All four of the singers in these roles - Wayne Tigges, Kerriann Otaño, RoBert Baker, and Daryl Freedman - harmonize with enough passion and tension to match Graham's supplications, pitting parental love against parental love.

The goal of DEAD MAN WALKING, according to its authors, is to "tell the story honestly and without any preaching...to let people make up their own minds". This goal is achieved, but not without asserting a strong argument for mercy and compassion from the point of view of Sister Helen, anchored by striking design and an exceptional cast.

Running time: approximately 2 hours 45 minutes, including one intermission.

DEAD MAN WALKING runs through March 11th, 2017, at the Opera House at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F Street NW, Washington, DC 20566. Tickets can be purchased at kennedy-center.org or by calling (800) 444-1324.

Photo: Kate Lindsey as Sister Helen Prejean and Michael Mayes as Joseph De Rocher; photo by Scott Suchman for WNO.

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