Vancouver Opera’s Dead Man Walking is a riveting journey driven by artistic brilliance

Photo credit: Trudie Lee, courtesy of Calgary Opera

Photo credit: Trudie Lee, courtesy of Calgary Opera

It’s incredible how a stage production can sometimes transport you to another time and place so convincingly that you forget you’re watching a show. Such is the case with Vancouver Opera’s (VO) Dead Man Walking, a 21st century American opera. Dead Man Walking is both a fascinating and moving look into the capital punishment debate. VO’s production is absolutely magnificent – a collaboration of incredible vocal and acting talent combined with astonishing brilliance in musical direction, staging, sets, lighting and costume design. But above all else – it tells a compelling story that will likely stay in many people’s minds long after the curtain falls.

The show’s plot follows the journey of Sister Helen Prejean, a young nun in 1980’s Louisiana, called upon to serve as spiritual advisor to death row inmate Joseph De Rocher. De Rocher was convicted for his part in the brutal murder and rape of a teenage couple. The story, which is based on the real-life memoirs of the actual Sister Helen (it was also made into a film), is as much about understanding the impact of the events on both sides – the families of the victims as well as the killer’s - in addition to the relationship between Sister Helen and De Rocher.

J'nai Bridges as the conflicted Sister Helen Prejean. Photo credit: Tim Matheson. 

J'nai Bridges as the conflicted Sister Helen Prejean. Photo credit: Tim Matheson. 

Like a car crash, the narrative is so riveting that you don’t dare look away – yet the severity and horrific nature of what has happened makes you feel uneasy. You feel unsettled looking into these people’s lives and feeling their grief. A parent’s last memories of seeing their child before they died; a final family photo before a family member is led away to be executed. And yet, everything is so fascinating at the same time – and makes you question how we govern ourselves as a society. As the opera’s composer Jake Heggie wrote in the show’s program, the story forces you to contemplate, “are we for vengeance or forgiveness?”

Director Joel Ivany’s vision is complete genius. His staging sweeps you away in a cinematic-like style, using Erhand Rom’s imaginative set to take you from a fateful night with horror in the air, to the hot, summer setting of Louisiana – in its churches, along its highways and in the State Penitentiary. The narrative flows seamlessly, greatly assisted by the endless display of sliding panels, revealing scrims, and creative use of different levels on the set. Rom’s cold, grey colour scheme creates a constantly chilling atmosphere – at times making you feel like you’re in a Communist concentration camp during the prison scenes, or watching a post-modern opera with an uncomfortable shrill of emptiness, as is the setting of Sister Helen’s bedroom in the second act.

"Dead Man Walking" examines the effects a horrific crime has on both the families of the victim and the murderer. Photo credit: Tim Matheson

"Dead Man Walking" examines the effects a horrific crime has on both the families of the victim and the murderer. Photo credit: Tim Matheson

The set works in conjunction with imaginative projections and Gerald King’s haunting lighting design, to fully take us to where Heggie’s score and Terrence McNally’s book beckons us to go. The show’s beginning could be right out of an American Crime series. Much of the show screams shades of West Side Story, with its themes on American culture and violence. This is also evident by the multi-level set with projections of prison bars (a somewhat related reference to the infamous West Side fire escapes), shouting convicts (again, a somewhat related reference to the shouts of the Jets and Sharks), and the score’s echoes of Leonard Bernstein.

Sister Helen’s drive to the State Penitentiary, with the highway projected behind her on a screen is an interesting throwback to Sunset Boulevard. And the eerie end to the show is very Stanley Kubrick-like.

The show's heroine, Sister Helen, undergoes quite the character development as she goes from being innocent and wide-eyed, to wise beyond her years. Photo credit: Tim Matheson

The show's heroine, Sister Helen, undergoes quite the character development as she goes from being innocent and wide-eyed, to wise beyond her years. Photo credit: Tim Matheson

Conductor Jonathan Darlington does an exquisite job conducting a phenomenal orchestra, and the cast’s vocal performances sound wonderful. The singers are able to incorporate southern twang accents into their performances, appropriate with the show’s setting. Costume designer Sheila White and wig designer Stacey Butterworth’s efforts also really help nail down the 1980’s southern setting – one look at Karen Ydenberg’s (she plays the mom of one of the victims) giant blonde wig and her 1980’s outfit and you might think you’ve been transported back in time.

J’Nai Bridges is outstanding in her performance as Sister Helen Prejean. She begins the show wide-eyed and innocent, and throughout the show we see her character develop as her relationship with De Rocher deepens, and as she experiences emotionally-charged encounters with families of both the victims and De Rocher. By the end of the show, the look in her eyes and the emotion and maturity in her voice is far beyond her character’s years. And along the way, she displays magnificent mezzo-soprano vocal control and delivery.

The show's creative team has done a fantastic job of transporting us back to 1980's era Louisiana. Photo credit: Tim Matheson

The show's creative team has done a fantastic job of transporting us back to 1980's era Louisiana. Photo credit: Tim Matheson

Daniel Okulitch, who has played De Rocher for many years in various productions, definitely knows what he’s doing. He’ll likely fool you into feeling his character isn’t worthy of sympathy in the first half of the show. But watch out – he may just tear you apart emotionally in the second half when he sheds the layers his character has been using as a visage.

Bridges and Daniel Okulitch as Joseph De Rocher. Photo credit: Tim Matheson

Bridges and Daniel Okulitch as Joseph De Rocher. Photo credit: Tim Matheson

With all the hype around town recently about Bridges and Okulitch, Judith Frost came out of nowhere and left the audience stunned on opening night with her performance as the mother of De Rocher. From her entrance as a meek, nervous mother pleading for her son’s life, to the overwhelmingly emotional peaks her character is driven to, Frost’s heart wrenching portrayal is an interesting mix of contemporary acting and grand opera.

Judith Forst delivers a stand-out performance as the mother of convicted murderer Joseph De Rocher. Photo credit: Tim Matheson

Judith Forst delivers a stand-out performance as the mother of convicted murderer Joseph De Rocher. Photo credit: Tim Matheson

And that’s what defines this entire production – contemporary theatre meets grand opera. The contemporary aspects deliver the modern story to audiences in a believable and digestible way. But the grand opera aspects allow the tremendously-charged emotions of the show to reach their full impact. The show grabs us by our emotions and doesn’t let go until after Bridges has finished her last note and many moments have passed as we sat in a blackout, contemplating what we’ve just witnessed.

Whatever your views on capital punishment are, Vancouver Opera’s Dead Man Walking will likely make you revisit your stance. You may not change your position, but at least you’ll have a renewed perspective on the subject matter. Dead Man Walking is an incredible display of riveting storytelling and artistic brilliance. This production would stand with the best of the best opera productions world-wide. What a terrific opportunity it has been to witness and enjoy such mastery here in Vancouver.

Vancouver Opera’s Dead Man Walking plays at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre until May 7. Visit the VO website for ticket information.