Heggie: Dead Man Walking

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Jake Heggie
ALBUM TITLE: Heggie: Dead Man Walking
WORKS: Dead Man Walking
PERFORMER: Measha Brueggergosman, Cheryl Parrish, Joyce DiDonato, Frederica von Stade, Susanne Mentzer, Jon Kolbert, Philip Cutlip, John Packard; Houston Grand Opera & Chorus/Patrick Summers

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Judged purely in terms of production numbers, Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking – which retells the story of a Catholic nun’s experience as spiritual advisor to a murderer on death row – must be the most successful opera of the 21st century so far. Since its premiere at San Francisco Opera in 2000, the work has been performed around the world, often communicating with a powerful appeal to audiences in places where the death penalty has either been recently repealed (South Africa, for instance) or in places where it is still enforced. Indeed, two Texan cities, Houston and Fort Worth, have seen it to date, and this live recording – complete with a fair amount of stage atmosphere – was made at Houston Grand Opera last year.

Critics who complain about Heggie’s reluctance to break new musical ground are themselves inevitably criticised, and so the cycle continues. But while of course not all new works need to revolutionise the genre, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Heggie’s easy-listening package is fundamentally unmemorable, and its unrelieved parlando feels more slow-moving than it really is. Less of an opera than a piece of post-Sondheim musical theatre, the piece nevertheless receives a committed performance here, with mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato oozing sincerity in the role of Sister Helen, and baritone Philip Cutlip’s rugged Joe ranging from nonchalance to desperation. Mezzo Frederica von Stade is movingly sympathetic as Joe’s mother, and the large cast also includes such names as mezzo Susanne Mentzer (playing Jade Boucher) and soprano Measha Brueggergosman (Sister Rose). Patrick Summers, who conducted the San Francisco premiere, takes charge of this Houston production.

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John Allison