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Flicka Says Farewell

Brown Theater, Wortham Center
01/22/2011 -  and Januray 29, February 2*, 4, 6, 2011
Jake Heggie: Dead Man Walking
Philip Cutlip (Joseph De Rocher), Joyce DiDonato (Sister Helen Prejean), Measha Brueggergosman (Sister Rose), Kathleen Manley (A Mother), Brittany Wheeler (Sister Lilianne), Kiri Deonarine (Sister Catherine), Zander Shepeard (Jimmy Charlton), Laurelle Gowing (Mrs. Charlton), Michael Sumuel (Motorcycle Cop/Prison Guard), Beau Gibson (Father Grenville), Hector Vásquez (George Benton), Boris Dyakov (Prison Guard), Frederic von Stade (Mrs. Patrick De Rocher), Brian P. Hamlin (Anthony De Rocher), Austin Dean (Joseph's Half-Brother), Cullen King (Joseph's Half-Brother), John Packard (Owen Hart), Cheryl Parrish (Kitty Hart), Susanne Mentzer (Jade Boucher), Jon Kolbet (Howard Boucher), Heather Sanders (Young Woman), Matt Hune (Young Man)
Houston Grand Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Patrick Summers (conductor)
Leonard Foglia (director), Michael McGarty (set designer), Jess Goldstein (costume designer), Brian Nason (lighting designer), Elain J. McCarthy (Projection Designer), Roger Gans (Sound Effects Designer)

J. DiDonato and M. Brueggergosman (© Felix Sanchez)

Houston Grand Opera's commitment to new opera continues its consistently high stride with the current production of Jake Heggie's first essay in the genre, Dead Man Walking. By and large, the performance is a celebration of the mezzo-soprano, with Joyce DiDonato, one of the HGO Studio's biggest success stories, singing with mesmerizing ability, and the legendary Frederica von Stade saying her farewell to the stage. The remainder of the excellent cast includes several more HGO Studio alumni, the overdue company debut of superb Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman, and a star turn by Philip Cutlip, who gives a truly memorable portrayal of Joseph De Rocher.

The actual music of the opera hovers in an innocuous netherworld that seems to permeate the 'successful' American operas composed in the last 15 years. Heggie's chosen language never pushes abrasively forward and features just enough harmonic and rhythmic dissonance to keep from turning into Broadway. He seems afraid of insinuating any of the action in his music, shading the plot in sound, subtly suggesting a situation, or capitalizing on the inherent ambiguity of music that the great opera composers exploited in their masterpieces. Characters and situations are spoon fed to us with 'calling card' leitmotifs. The truly challenging moments of the plot aren't set with musical imagination, and there is too much reliance on prerecorded sound effects, even if they are Heggie's own creations.

The 'Prologue' should be an orchestral overture; the rape and murder for which Joseph De Rocher and his brother are convicted could have effectively been depicted purely by music means, before the curtain rises. Richard Strauss depicted lusty ecstasy quite potently using solely his orchestral palette at the beginning of Der Rosenkavalier. John Adams came up with an ingeniously unnerving setting of Klinghoffer's execution. Here, however, every attempt seems to have been made to brand Dead Man Walking with a 'Parental Advisory' label. Nudity, rape and murder are all visually portrayed in the first five minutes, the 'F' word pops up regularly, and the audience is subjected to smoke from Joseph's cigarette trailing off stage. Nothing is left to the imagination here. Realism has been out-realized. Verismo has been made a liar.

Fortunately, vocal splendor overshadows the absence of operatic and musical attributes. Joyce DiDonato is simply stunning as Sister Helen. It is a privilege to experience the tradition of fantastic mezzo singing passing to her from von Stade in real time. To see these two superlative actress-singers take roles about conflicted women and exceed the libretto's character sketches is a true happening. DiDonato transforms effortlessly from a meek, uncertain convict's pen pal into a strong, assertive spiritual muse. Her singing and characterization grow from pretty in her opening scene with schoolchildren to preternatural in her final scene with Joseph. She is wonderfully paired with Brueggergosman, and their Act 2 duet is easily the finest moment in the opera. Heggie here crafts a magnificent, Straussian duet between the two women, and the singers clearly recognize this as a highpoint. The impressiveness of this scene—all too brief—makes one long for more similar moments in the balance of the drama.

Increased focus on Joseph's mother could have helped, not only because Frederica von Stade is singing the role, but because hers is the one character that every audience member can truly empathize with. Some might find Sister Helen misguided in her affections, and some might not have an ounce of sympathy for Joseph after his misdoings, but all must recognize the difficulty of Mrs. Patrick De Rocher's position. The libretto woefully underdevelops this character, but von Stade makes the most of what she is given. She traces a graceful arc from fragile to forthright to helpless with the perfect helping of extra Heft in the voice, uprightness of stature and confidence in confrontation. Her initial scene, facing the audience and turning us into Joseph's judge, sadly doesn't sustain itself musically, but her farewell scene with her son is powerful stuff.

The effectiveness of that scene is due not only to von Stade's convincing realization, but to Cutlip's committed portrayal of Joseph De Rocher. Regardless of how one feels about his character's actions, Cutlip's performance is beyond reproach. In last season's Xerxes we got a brief preview of this fine singer, but here we find him in a dramatically convincing and vocally secure portrayal of a tortured antihero. Masterfully switching from hyperbolized machismo to arrested development, this is a role that seems tailor-made to this voice and this actor.

The quartet of the murdered children's parents is also quite strong, although they have to deal with ensemble writing that refuses to break the foursome into independent but complementary musical lines. With all four singing legato lines in similar registers, they become an anonymous mob instead of a group of individuals. Other small roles are sung with similar acumen, including exceptional performances from Hector Vásquez as an appropriately stereotypical warden and Michael Samuel, stealing his scene as a motorcycle cop. Heggie's choral conceits aren't entirely effective, but the HGO Chorus and Children's Chorus are, as always, in peak form. Patrick Summer's fine orchestra makes child's play of an at times awkward score.

Heggie has won over a large public with his operatic oeuvre, including the real-life Helen Prejean and a mindboggling list of superlative singers. Dead Man Walking is, without a doubt, extremely popular. But is this an important opera? Does it truly do its subject matter musical justice? For me, the jury has spoken.

Marcus Karl Maroney



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