Minnesota Opera's 'Dead Man Walking' soars with emotion, excellent singing

Review: Minnesota Opera's production proves musically rich and emotionally gripping. 

“Demanding” — it’s probably not the first adjective you want to hear to describe an opera. But Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking” asks a lot of everyone, both onstage and in the audience. It’s a difficult story that’s hard to stage, sing, play … and, on some level, to experience.

But that hasn’t stopped it from becoming the most popular opera written in the 21st century. It’s been produced dozens of times on multiple continents, and now Twin Cities audiences are catching up with it, thanks to a Minnesota Opera production that opened at St. Paul’s Ordway Music Theater Saturday night with an unimpeachably well-executed performance. While parts may be challenging to sit through, “Dead Man Walking” takes you inside life experiences quite foreign to the inside of an opera house. The result is a theatrical experience that’s compelling, but an opera that will likely summon up varied reactions.

Like the five world premieres that Minnesota Opera has produced this decade, “Dead Man Walking” was a film first. While composer Heggie and librettist Terrence McNally built it around a memoir by Sister Helen Prejean that inspired the Oscar-winning 1995 movie, there’s no getting around the idea that it’s easier to get funding and buzz for a new opera if the title has some familiarity.

But this is not at all familiar fare for regular opera goers. It opens with a dimly lit scene of rape and murder, then takes us on the journey of a Catholic nun who is becoming spiritual adviser to one of the perpetrators of that crime. It proves a controversial friendship, especially among the victims’ parents, but Sister Helen stays with him. And we stay with both of them through the process of execution, American style.

So it’s not an opera that’s intended to be enjoyed, instead showing you something from which you might rather turn away. Is it an anti-capital punishment opera? Certainly not in an activist sense, for the victims’ parents advocating for the execution are given a fair hearing and are anything but villains. And Sister Helen’s opposition to the death penalty is rather understated. The drama is more about her stepping into a hothouse of hatred and trying to plant seeds of love.

Yes, it’s tough terrain, but it’s easy to see why so many opera companies have produced this work. It’s a provocative conversation starter full of intensity and no fewer than a dozen prominent roles, the singers’ voices showcased in memorable solos and layers of interweaving lines. And Minnesota Opera has put together an excellent ensemble, while conductor Michael Christie and the orchestra do fine things with the score. And a design full of projections and cage-like cross-hatching works well for the piece.

Yet it bears noting that this was Heggie’s first opera. While the staging struck me as bold, his music didn’t seem assertive enough in its vision. It dabbled in languorous Gershwin-like lines here and percussive, propulsive bits of Bernstein there, strains of gospel wafting in and out, but it never gelled into a cohesive voice. Too often, I found myself intrigued by something coming from the orchestra before a singer would burst forth with music that felt dropped in from an entirely different piece.

It’s clearly a difficult score to sing, which makes this production’s performances all the more impressive. Catherine Martin has a clear, powerful mezzo-soprano voice and offered a disarmingly natural characterization as Sister Helen. And soprano Emily Pulley is magnificent as the mother of the convict, delivering two heartbreaking arias.

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