Joyce DiDonato Leads a Superb Cast in Dead Man Walking Under the Baton of Mark Wigglesworth

SpainSpain Heggie, Dead Man Walking: Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Real / Mark Wigglesworth (conductor), Teatro Real, Madrid, 26.1.2018. (JMI)

Joyce DiDonato in Dead Man Walking © J. del Real
Joyce DiDonato in Dead Man Walking © J. del Real

Sister Helen – Joyce DiDonato
Joseph de Rocher – Michael Mayes
Mrs. De Rocher – Maria Zifchak
Sister Rose – Measha Brueggergosman
George Benton – Damián del Castillo
Father Grenville – Roger Padullés
Howard Boucher – Viçenc Esteve
Jade Boucher – Marta de Castro
Kitty Hart – María Hinojosa
Owen Hart – Toni Marsol
Policeman/Guard – Enric Martínez-Castignani
Sister Catherine – Celia Alcedo
Sister Lillianne – Marifé Nogales

Director – Leonard Foglia
Sets – Michael Mcgarty
Costumes – Jess Goldstein
Lighting – Brian Nason
Video Projections – Eliane J. McCarthy

This is the first time that Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking has been presented in Spain, and it was a real triumph. Everything came together: an agile, well-suited staging, remarkable musical direction and an irreproachable vocal cast, especially in regard to the opera’s most important characters. In addition, it’s an opera with an excellent libretto and outstanding modern music.

Heggie’s first opera, it had its world premiere in 2000 in San Francisco. This and the Heggie operas that followed continue to be programmed with some frequency, especially in the United States. The opera is based on an actual event: the protagonist, Sister Helen Prejean, was the spiritual adviser in his final days to Joseph de Rocher, who was condemned to death for murder. Sister Helen wrote a book about her experience, upon which Terrence McNally based his excellent libretto. The book was also adapted for a movie that starred Susan Sarandon.

Leonard Foglia a great connoisseur of Heggie’s work, and supplied the libretto for the latter’s The End of the Affair. His production is very convincing in terms of plot development, and the stage direction is remarkable. The sets largely consist of metal structures which allow for quick scene changes, and the costumes are appropriate.

There are also good projections of images throughout. In short, it’s a production at the service of the opera that perfectly narrates the plot without losing any of the drama.

The musical direction was entrusted to Mark Wigglesworth, one of the fundamental reasons for the opera’s success in Madrid. I have seen him conduct Mozart operas in the past, but here he was much more in his element. Both the orchestra and the chorus gave fine performances.

Sister Helen was played by Joyce DiDonato; she sang the role in Houston seven years ago. Her identification with the character is remarkable, and both her singing and acting were excellent. It has been a real luxury to have her at the Spanish premiere.

I would place baritone Michael Mayes as Joseph de Rocher at the same high level. He has a strong, sonorous voice and sang with plenty of emotion, especially in the second part of the opera.

I cannot fail to highlight mezzo-soprano Maria Zifchak as Mrs. De Rocher, the mother of the condemned. She has sung the part several times in the United States and has a great command of it. She offered a remarkable vocal performance and ably conveyed her feelings to the audience.

Sister Rose, the companion of Sister Helen, completes the list of lead characters. She was remarkably served in every way by Measha Brueggergosman.

The rest of the characters are less important, but all were impressive. Among them I should mention the Harts and the Bouchers, the parents of the murdered youths at the beginning of the opera. Viçenc Esteve as Howard Boucher and Toni Marsol as Owen Hart were particularly notable, and María Hinojosa (Kitty) and Marta de Castro (Jade) were also convincing.

Baritone Damian del Castillo did well as George Benton, as did Roger Padullés as Father Grenville and Enric Martínez-Castignani, who doubled as Motorized Police and First Guard.

The audience gave an enthusiastic reception to the artists, especially to Joyce DiDonato, Michael Mayes and Maria Zifchak. Jake Heggie and Sister Helen Prejean came out on stage to take their bows.

José M. Irurzun

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