ATLANTA OPERA continued its 2018–19 season with Dead Man Walking, the adaptation by Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally of Sister Helen Prejean’s memoir recounting her prison ministry at the Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana in the early 1980s. On February 2, with both the composer and Sister Helen in the audience, and a cast filled with first-class singers, the company presented a gritty, unsettling show, a coproduction with the Israeli Opera, directed by AO general and artistic director Tomer Zvulun.
Dead Man presents an onstage rape and murder (as well as brief nudity), likely startling the sensibilities of some regular patrons more accustomed to onstage deaths in opera that are less graphic. Nevertheless, the action was tastefully done and essential to the drama. Within this text-driven and tense opera, Zvulun attempted to create movement whenever possible. Don Darnutzer’s digital projections onto a cinderblock set designed by R. Keith Brumley helped accomplish this, creating ambiance as well as change in venue. The Atlanta Opera Orchestra, led by Joseph Mechavich, played the meandering score with precision.
Jamie Barton, an international-class mezzo-soprano and a Georgia native, navigated Heggie’s tricky speech rhythms and fluid key signatures for Sister Helen. Making her role debut, Barton was adept at establishing the sincerity and empathy that Sister Helen must demonstrate. The convicted killer Sister Helen counsels, Joseph De Rocher, was sung by baritone Michael Mayes, a veteran of several Dead Man productions. The role fits Mayes’s instrument and comportment like a glove: the opera could have been written for him, and his interpretation of the character is definitive.
Zvulun cast every role in the opera, even the smallest, with first-rate voices. It was a reunion of leading men and women who have sung here in Atlanta under his watch. Maria Zifchak, who sang Mrs. Lovett in Atlanta last summer, proved that she is a consummate vocal chameleon as Mrs. Patrick De Rocher. Zifchak’s aria, “I am a mother,” was understated and endearing. Tenor Jay Hunter Morris, a former Pagliacci Canio here, sang the role of Father Grenville with ample voice. Bass Kevin Burdette, a perfect Pirate King in Atlanta’s Pirates of Penzance two seasons ago, portrayed the warden George Benton. Bass-baritone Wayne Tigges, last seen at AO as Wagner’s Dutchman, was a mesmerizing Owen Hart, spearheading the four grieving parents of De Rocher’s two victims. Amy Little (Kitty Hart), Justin Stolz (Howard Boucher) and Maria McDaniel (Jade Boucher) were likewise regal in their agony and delivered one of the most important moments in the show, “You don’t know,” with devastating force. —Stephanie Adrian