WORKS: Dead Man Walking
PERFORMER: Susan Graham, John Packard, Frederica von Stade, Theresa Hamm-Smith, Gary Rideout; San Francisco Opera Chorus & Orchestra/Patrick Summers
CATALOGUE NO: 8573-86238-2
You probably need to see this opera to begin appreciating it. Simply in terms of its subject matter – capital punishment and the effect it has on the lives of those around the condemned – Dead Man Walking is surely required viewing in Bush’s America. Indeed, opera house managements are recognising this, and since the San Francisco premiere in October 2000 several American companies have signed up to stage the work. But on disc alone, and in spite of some very committed performances, this sensationalist piece makes uncomfortable listening in the wrong sort of way: Jake Heggie’s score moves through a wide range of idioms in easy-listening arioso, and lacks the long-range musical ideas needed to sustain such a work.
Based on those San Francisco performances, this ‘live’ recording at least stands as a document of the work’s premiere. Susan Graham in the central role of Sister Helen Prejean gives a performance beyond criticism, and it is a pleasure to hear her sing anything and to admire her way with words – even Terrence McNally’s cloying libretto. She is equalled by Frederica von Stade, strong and sincere as the condemned man’s mother. John Packard evokes the obstinate toughness of the prisoner himself. Under Patrick Summers’s baton the San Francisco forces perform with total conviction. John Allison