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Dead Man Walking: Great Leads Make Grim Story Come Alive
Pensacola Opera

Reviewed by Ed Cloos

As seen March 19

Intense, masterly performances by its two leads held a Pensacola Opera audience totally in its dramatic spell on a beautiful Florida afternoon March 19.

The opera about the execution of a man convicted with his brother of the murder of a young couple closely follows the best-selling book of the same title by Sister Helen Prejean, the anti-capital punishment activist nun who worked to bring peace to a condemned man. Both men originally were sentenced to death, but after a series of appeals and a second jury trial the brother's sentence was reduced to life in prison.

Sister Helen has consulted in a number of productions--there've been at least 50 since the 2000 premiere--and stresses in her many personal appearances that it isn't intended to advance the debate or change people's minds. It simply tells one man's story as she saw it.

The opera was commissioned by San Francisco Opera, with music by Jake Heggie, then a little-known composer of songs, and libretto by Terrence McNally, a generation older and long a famous playwright. It was an immediate success, and has become easily the most performed modern opera.

The heart of the opera is the struggle of the condemned man to come to terms with his crime and impending death. But the soul is the struggle of Sister Helen to hold her own faith in the forgiveness of God, and truly to forgive the man herself. It isn't until the final hours that he confesses and offers the apology that the parents of the victims had asked for. He had maintained until then that his brother was the actual killer. Both say, "I love you." He's taken away to be prepared for execution then brought back to his cell. Then the warden intones the words that apparently are traditional at the prison: "Dead man walking." Then we all witness the execution by lethal injection.

Michael Mayes brought Joe De Rocher, the opera name of the condemned man, to us in the flesh, both with his rich baritone, his imposing physical presence--the second act opens with him counting out more than 50 pushups, which he appeared to do with ease--.and his nuanced dramatic skill. He's called on to be an unrepentant Cajun roughneck who also is a frightened boy who never grew up. Mayes spoke with Cajun inflections, but none of the rest of the cast affected any sort of southern drawl.

He couldn't have been more prepared as he'd played the role just last month with Washington National Opera, though in an entirely different production. That drew
 favorable reviews, except for the one that counts most in DC: from Anne Midgette in the Washington Post. She praised Mayes but found the opera itself somewhat clichéd, especially the McNally-invented scene near the actual execution when Sister Helen and Joe break the tension through their mutual love of Elvis Presley. They riff on snatches of some of his songs including, of course, Jailhouse Rock. Well, sure, but it works with the audience.

He also drew rave reviews in New Orleans, Denver and a revival with San Francisco Opera. He IS Joe De Rocher. It takes a steely-strong Sister Helen to play against all this, and Elise Quagliata proved up to the challenge. Her lovely mezzo expressed the inner strength and the abiding faith that gets Sister Helen through the fears and doubts she has to overcome. There are many. Helen had developed a pen pal relationship with the condemned man at his request (she was already widely-known, at least in Louisiana, for her activism against government-sanctioned killing). When he asked her to visit him in Louisiana State Prison in Angola, her fellow Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille (now the Congression of St. Joseph) warn her not to do it. Sister Rose, Helen's close friend, expresses her fears but never waivers in her loving support. NaGuanda Nobles, a fine lyric soprano, was the perfect counter balance to the driven Helen. Even a traffic cop who stops her for speeding warns her not to go on to Angola. Realizing that she is a nun, he declines to give her a ticket and asks her to say a prayer for his mother who has cancer.

At the prision, Father Grenville, the chaplin, (Thomas Rowell) warns her that De Rocher is unreachable. They never achieve any kind of working relationship. Warden Benton (Patrick Jacobs) gives her the same warning, though he is nicer to her than the priest, and helps her in many ways along the way. When she finally reaches De Rocher's cell, after a catcall-filled walk through the Death Row block, she finds him not so bad, but wary and suspicious all the same. Her fear is that he will ask her to be his "spiritual advisor," and he soon does. That role confers greater visiting privileges, even to his cell, but also the responsibility to guide him right up to his execution. She's tortured through nightmares and visions the rest of the way, but she knows she won't refuse. She can't.

Much of the dialog is spoken, though from what I've read of other productions, apparently quite a bit can be sung as recitative. I find that approach can become tiresome.

The parents of the slain couple are important to maintaining the tension in the drama. They're outspoken in their resentment of the attention Sister Helen's efforts to save De Rocher has gotten from newspapers and TV. "Who's trying to comfort us?" is their question in common. Sister Helen tried, but with little success.

The role of Joe's mother is considered a major one, and Susan Graham (the original Sister Helen), by all accounts made it a musical highlight in Washington, Hanan Tarabay ably filled the dramatic part in her testimony to the Pardon Board in pleading for his sentence to be commuted to life in prison. Her "Don't Kill My Boy" aria didn't.

The music director/conductor Jerome Shannon was another stabilizing influence since he'd conducted four previous productions.

The staging deserves special mention. It opens with the stage darkened for the prologue in which the brutal crime is vividly reenacted. The young couple is on a blanket, after swimming in the remote lake, listening to music from their car radio when the brothers come upon them. They grab them both and one begins raping the girl (against the far side of the car, away from the audience). The girl is killed by repeated knife stabs to the throat. The boy, who continues to struggle as the other brother hold shim, is shot. The libretto called for them to be nude since they'd been skinny dipping; not in Pensacola.

Scenery consisted primarily of panels suspended from above. For scenes at the prison, where most of the action takes place, they were moved around into different configurations in a choreographed way. For a scene in Sister Helen's bedroom, it was a narrow bed in a small lighted area of the darkened stage. This permitted the performance to flow from scene to scene without breaks, maintaining the building tension.

The effect on the audience was palpable in that the customary applause that would follow an aria or ensemble piece--there were some fine ones--sometimes didn't take place, so intense was the suspense.

The opera is in no sense a polemic against capital punishment, but it inspired a small vigil at the theater entrance by young people who displayed signs illustrating that the United States stands alone among developed Western nations in exercising the death penalty. They were from the local chapter of the Episcopal Peace Fellowhip and were there with the permission of Pensacola Opera.

What actually happened

The brothers were Elmo Patrick Sonnier, called Patrick, and younger brother Eddie. The victims were a girl, 18, and boy, 16. They had parked in an isolated area after a high school football game. When the attackers came upon them, they took them more than 20 miles to a sugar cane field in Iberia Parish. Both men raped the girl, then both she and the boy were shot in the back of the head while lying face-down.

The brothers each claimed the other was the shooter. At various other times each also claimed he was the actual shooter.

In the high profile case, Sonnier was given a funeral Mass in a Baton Rouge funeral home, conducted by Bishop Stanley Ott. “Blessed are the merciful for they will obtain mercy,” intoned Bishop Ott, according to the report in The Times-Picayune of New Orleans. He also offered prayers for the victims' families. The sisters of Sister Helen's order made the arrangements and he was buried in an area of a Catholic cemetery reserved for the nuns.

A striking note in the opera is when Warden Benton comments: “There are 200 men here, and they're all going to die. You never get used to it.” The actual number of executions in all of Louisiana since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 is 28, according to Death Penalty Information Center. The most recent was in 2010, and that was just the second since 2000. Only Texas has carried out as many as 200, and they are at 542 as of March 15.

Eddie Sonnier died Dec. 19, 2013 at Angola. He was buried in the prison cemetery after a service attended only by fellow prisoners. Sister Helen had continued to visit him for 31 years.

In addition to Patrick Sonnier, Sister Helen was spiritual advisor to a second condemned man. He was executed later in 1984. She currently is advisor to one man and one woman facing execution, according to her Facebook page.

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