Sunday, February 22, 2015

Opera Parallèle: Dead Man Walking

Friday night I was at the opening performance of Opera Parallèle's production of Dead Man Walking. Baritone Michael Mayes as death row inmate De Rocher looked, acted & sounded the part. His singing was sinewy & clean & particularly beautiful in his reverie about "A warm night" in his 1st scene with Sister Helen. He was both obdurate & vulnerable, & his character's final redemption felt well-earned. Mezzo Jennifer Rivera as Sister Helen was consistently sturdy & conveyed a hard strength throughout. As De Rocher's mother, mezzo Catherine Cook made a big impact & was emotionally powerful in all her scenes. Her voice was steady, grounded & gripping, & she switched seamlessly from speech to song in her address to the pardoning commission.

Baritone Robert Orth as the father of one of the murder victims sang urgently, & the ensemble of the victims' parents in act 1 had focused intensity. The high, concentrated voice of tenor John Duykers as Father Grenville & the effortlessly large sound of bass-baritone Philip Skinner as the warden were distinctive. I also enjoyed hearing soprano Talise Trevigne's swooping, full-throated sound as Sister Rose. The production's adult & child choruses were both solid.

At the start of the show, conductor Nicole Paiement stealthily entered the pit with her head lowered so that we would not applaud her. She got an amazingly lush, sweeping sound from an orchestra of only 30 musicians. They played crisply, & I enjoyed listening to the woodwinds & the 2 charged-up violists.

Director Brian Staufenbiel left the stage as a large empty space. To indicate the various locations, the cast positioned chairs, beds & large metal frames that hung from the flies. I was unclear about the meaning of the bare light bulbs that sometimes descended in front of the chorus of inmates. Videos were projected on an overhanging, beamed structure at the back of the stage. The videos unobtrusively indicated scene changes & sometimes augmented the action.

The teenagers who are murdered in the opening scene are retained as mute characters, often appearing at the side of De Rocher or Sister Helen like ghosts. In the final scene, their gestures of forgiveness toward their killer are both surprising & satisfying. Though the performance was over 3 hours long, the audience was engrossed throughout. People laughed heartily at the libretto's jokes & witnessed the execution scene in taut silence. It felt inappropriate to be clapping after that, but there was warm applause for the cast & for composer Jake Heggie, who came out for a bow. On our way out of the theater, we saw an after-party being set up on the stage.

§ Dead Man Walking: An Opera in Two Acts
Music by Jake Heggie
Libretto by Terrence McNally

Opera Parallèle
Conductor: Nicole Paiement
Director: Brian Staufenbiel

Sister Helen: Jennifer Rivera
Sister Rose: Talise Trevigne
Sister Catherine: Crystal Kim
Sister Lilianne: Krista Wigle
Mrs. Charlton: Rachel Rush
Mother: Ellen Presley
Cop: Mark Hernandez
Father Grenville: John Duykers
George Benton: Philip Skinner
Guard 1: Igor Vieira
Guard 2: Anders Froehlich
Inmate 1: Mark Hernandez
Inmate 2: Andres Ramirez
Inmate 3: Lorne Barfield
Inmate 4: Roy Eikleberry
Inmate 5: Patrick Hage
Inmate 6: Chris Coyne
Joseph De Rocher: Michael Mayes
Older Brother: Jonathan Smucker
Younger Brother: Baxter Spark
Mrs. De Rocher: Catherine Cook
Owen Hart: Robert Orth
Kitty Hart: Kristin Clayton
Howard Boucher: Joseph Meyers
Jade Boucher: Michelle Rice

Brandon Blum
Amitis Rossoukh

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater
8 p.m. February 20, 2015

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