Score: Jake Heggie; Libretto: Terrence McNally
At: Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 N. Wacker Drive. Tickets: 312-827-5600 or LyricOpera.org; $39-$279. Runs through Nov. 22
Dead Man Walking takes audiences on complex moral journey. And this opera, an amazing first-time collaboration by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Terrence McNally, is more than willing to "go there."
In the opening scene, two naked Louisiana teenagers are graphically murdered. After that horror, the scene shifts to Sister Helen Prejean ( Patricia Racette ) singing the recurring hymn "He Will Gather Us Around" as a bouncy crowd of kids ( members of the Chicago Children's Choir ) clamors on to join in.
This jarring start shows that Dead Man Walking is not going to pull any punches. Not only does the opera bring up divisive opinions on capital punishment, it also taps into human emotional extremes of seeking revenge and pleading for forgiveness.
For its Lyric Opera of Chicago premiere, Dead Man Walking arrives via director Leonard Foglia's well-traveled 2002 production. Foglia's work with the cast is riveting with such searing material, while designers Michael McGarty ( sets ) and Brian Nason ( lighting ) work together well for a very seamless staging.
Racette makes a strong role debut as Sister Helen, a Catholic nun whose autobiographical 1993 memoir details her first experiences as a spiritual advisor to death row inmates in the 1980s. Sister Helen was originally written for mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, who has now expertly moved on to the heartbreaking role of the murderer's mother, Mrs. De Rocher.
So with a soprano like Racette as Sister Helen, the role naturally takes on a brighter aural sheen. It suits the character's initial sunniness, and then deepens as Sister Helen finds strength to try to bring some spiritual redemption to the unrepentant murderer Joseph De Rocher.
Bass-baritone Ryan McKinny brings many layers to De Rocher. He's full of menace and defiance from the start, but later starts to crumble when facing his own mortality.
Many of the supporting roles are also strongly cast. Whitney Morrison beautifully inhabits Sister Rose, who wisely questions Sister Helen about her physical and mental health. Gordon Hawkins is gruff and understanding as prison warden George Benton.
Also of note are murdered teens' parents played by Wayne Tigges, Talise Trevigne, Lauren Decker and Allan Glassman. It's easy to understand their outrage at Sister Helen for her advocacy on behalf of the De Rochers.
Conductor Nicole Paiement leads the Lyric Opera Orchestra with plenty of welcome tension. She fleetly balances the score's quieter, reflective moments with the cacophonous climaxes.
Nearly two decades on since its 2000 premiere, Dead Man Walking looks like a strong contender to enter the standard operatic repertory. It's unflinching with its life-or-death dramatic stakes, while also being open-hearted enough to earnestly share universal emotional truths.