Dead Man Walking

Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow

Keith Bruce

four stars

THERE is a manipulative sense of foreboding in the opening bars of the orchestral music of Jake Heggie’s opera based Sister Helen Prejean’s hugely influential book, Dead Man Walking – An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States (which also became an acclaimed film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn), but it hardly prepares you for the brutality of the scene that follows, crucially punctuated by the screaming of the murdered rape victim, played by McCallister Selva.

Undoubtedly part of the success of Dead Man Walking, still Heggie’s best known major work, at least until his opera version of Moby Dick in 2010 a decade later, is that it leaves nothing out. And if that is true of Terrence McNally’s libretto, it is also the case with the composer’s music, which draws on the short history of opera in America (Weill, Bernstein and Adams are all audible) as well as musical theatre, and earlier 20th century composers like Janacek. If this pot pourri lacks a consistent identity, it undoubtedly serves its subject, and is given a terrific performance by the students of the Alexander Gibson Opera School in this cleverly-designed production by Caroline Clegg and Adrian Linford.

With terrific choral work, including a posse of youngsters from the Junior Conservatoire, and a large orchestra playing its socks off for conductor James Holmes (including some stellar wind soloists), this is a major piece of work which any fans of opera – or musical theatre for that matter – should move mountains to see. There is a very profound story told here, with a great deal to say about faith, the value of truth and human society and this staging – the first full production in the UK – is top quality.

That goes for the performances too, and especially that of mezzo Carolyn Holt as Sister Helen, whose singing is matched with nuanced, characterful acting, with Mark Nathan also impressive as the condemned man, Joseph de Rocher, and Fiona Joice as his mother. When the parents of the victims combine with Holt and Joice in a sextet towards the end of Act 1, it is one of the many moving highlights of the piece.