In the program notes to Washington National Opera’s new production of Dead Man Walking, composer Jake Heggie notes that the premiere of a new opera was a “rare occasion” in 2000, when this piece first appeared in San Francisco. Since then, it has flourished in a way few contemporary operas have, garnering nearly 300 performances across the globe. But having finally seen it this past Saturday in DC, I’m afraid this work’s popularity may be a result of first-mover advantage more than anything else. 

Neither Heggie nor playwright Terrence McNally, who wrote the libretto, seem to trust the source material very much. Here is a story about real people and institutions that, in its original book form and the celebrated 1995 Tim Robbins movie, managed to powerfully confound audience expectations with a story about finding compassion amidst the routine taking of human life, whether murder or state-sanctioned execution. It’s material that demands nuance and restraint, but Dead Man Walking the opera is relentlessly obvious, a work that repeatedly turns to tired tropes and canned characters to fill up its nearly three hour run time.

The team seems to think their assignment here is to take the story’s constituent parts and reduce them to the operatic nuggets therein. There’s Sister Helen recast as a sort of bayou Sister Maria, her arrival in the prison a descent into hell replete with prisoners delivering a lusty infernal chorus, and the prisoner to be executed, here named Joseph De Rocher, a swaggering Cajun Mefistofele, who soon sets to tempting our poor Sister.

Helen’s melodramatic interactions with De Rocher might as well be occurring in Saint Sulpice, and of course the prison guards sadistically taunt their prisoners. Less forgivably, the murdered teenagers’ parents become bourgeois harpies stubbornly withholding their forgiveness.

Heggie’s polished, neo-romantic score is a key ingredient in this reductive logic. Liberal use of bluesy riffs in the orchestration and vocal writing never let us forget we are in the south, enhancing the sense that we are dealing with caricatures. The orchestration seethes and surges, but rarely seems to have a life beyond a movie-score level reflection of the basic emotions being portrayed onstage. Several of the set pieces, including the monologue for De Rocher’s mother, and the two act finales for the full ensemble, are memorable in isolation, but in context play as overwrought, unearned grand gestures.

The libretto also suffers from what one might describe as the “cinematic” tendency that bedevils a number of new operas. See, for instance, an early scene like the one in which Sister Helen is pulled over by a state trooper. In a movie, this might be an effective way to subtly communicate something about the place or a sense of foreboding. But the bar in an opera for musical and dramatic interest is much higher, and scenes like this feel like a waste of time that draw us away from the work’s core musical and dramatic thrust.

Indeed, McNally’s scenes frequently seem to be trying to evoke an emotion or sense of pathos without identifying the immediate stakes that would make an interaction between the characters interesting. The result is a curious feeling of unremitting tension and emotional outpouring, but little authentic engagement with the characters. While I remain skeptical that this is good material for an opera, to do it justice would surely require more inventiveness and willingness to use the opportunities afforded by the theater than the stultifyingly literalism on display here.

I should also mention the problematic opening scene, which depicts the murders of the two teenagers in lurid stage choreography, set to a driving, percussive score and shrieks from the actors. I’m sure the dramatic rationale here is that the terrible crime should color the subsequent proceedings, but there is something arrogant and borderline tasteless in blatantly dramatizing the relatively recent murders of real people. One expects this kind of logic from true crime shows that specialize in low-budget dramatizations, not thoughtful storytelling.

WNO has corralled a strong cast to present this work in DC for the first time. Kate Lindsey brought an attractive, focused soprano to Sister Helen, though her relatively modest sound sometimes had trouble asserting itself over the orchestra. She is a compelling actress, and made interesting work out of Helen’s monologues, as well as throwing herself with abandon into some of the more misguided parts of the libretto that try to put across the character’s “spunky” side.

Michael Mayes delivered a big, magnetic stage presence for Joseph De Rocher, supported by a warm, even baritone that proved equally at home tackling the music’s sliding jazzy motifs and the more demanding passages as De Rocher wrestles with his guilt.

As De Rocher’s mother, Susan Graham, the original “Helen Prejean,” proved a special treat. Barely recognizable in a bad perm wig and unflattering middle-aged lady get-up (an entertaining departure from the glamorous Didon I witnessed in Chicago a few months ago), she offered a harrowing reading of the mother’s parole board monologue.

Highlights of the supporting cast included several current and former WNO young artists. Timothy J. Bruno’s distinctive bass made something special out of the character part of the warden; likewise for mezzo Daryl Freedman, who portrayed one of the victims’ mothers. Jacqueline Echols, memorable as the woodbird in last year’s Ring returned to lend her clarion soprano and sympathetic presence to the role of Sister Rose.

WNO artistic director Francesca Zambello directed this spare new production, which seems to provide an honest representation of the piece. It’s hard to tell whether more intervention might not mitigate some of the work’s problems, though Zambello certainly doesn’t shy away from playing the score’s excesses to the hilt. Scenery chewing abounds, while the ensemble pieces are staged like any chorus scene from a Verdi potboiler.

Set design by Allen Moyer involves a simple catwalk and flies that demarcate some of the playing spaces. If anything, the production design might have benefited from more rigorously adhering to a minimalist approach. Lighting design by Christopher Akerlind has some striking moments, like the eerie scene of De Rocher’s cell lit from below that opens the 2nd Act, but these alternate with too many instances where the singers are bathed in wan, indeterminate lighting that betrays the relatively attention production values are receiving for this run.

Photos: Scott Suchman