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In ‘Dead Man Walking,’ music elevates the intense emotions surrounding crime and capital punishment

The must-see Lyric Opera production beautifully showcases singers Susan Graham, Ryan McKinny and Patricia Racette.

Sister Helen Prejean (Patricia Racette) tries to help a death row inmate (Ryan McKinny) in “Dead Man Walking” at the Lyric Opera House.
Ken Howard

There’s a scene toward the end of the first act in “Dead Man Walking” — the final appeal of Louisiana death row rapist and murderer Joseph De Rocher — when it becomes clear that the focus of the thriller onstage at Lyric Opera of Chicago is not what Joseph did, but the human tragedy spiraling around it.

By this halfway point in the searing, must-see stage piece based on a true story of a man waiting to die for his crime, we know that Joseph stabbed a girl in the neck repeatedly with a knife while raping her. And as adapted by playwright Terence McNally to music of Jake Heggie, we also see Joseph continue to deny his guilt while chewing on the irony that his brother, who shot the dead girl’s companion, got away with a life sentence because he had “a better lawyer.”

So there’s bitter comedy. We also know that Sister Helen Prejean (whose real-life namesake inspired the opera) will try to help Joseph while struggling personally with the imperative of divine forgiveness in the face of Joseph’s horrible deed.

So there’s religious doubt. And we will hear from the victims’ parents, whose lives have crumbled because they cannot move on.

So there’s inconsolable rage.

But it’s Joseph’s disheveled mother, in a heart-wrenching scene that mezzo-soprano Susan Graham was destined to play, who opens the story up to gorgeous transcendence as the opera propels toward its intermission pause. As a downtrodden woman whose eloquence lies in her utter inadequacy to change the course of a hearing to appeal Joseph’s fate, Graham delivered what felt like the authentic improvisation of someone trying to stop the unstoppable, with nothing to bargain with but her gasps about sweet things Joseph did as a little boy.

In Graham’s portrait of fraying desperation, which is met by ferocious push-back from the parents of the murdered kids, and the collapse of the overwhelmed Roman Catholic nun, the energy in the Lyric Opera House seemed to shift away from the hearing itself. There was that telltale extra moment of silence at the act’s end, like a collective holding of breath that comes with the tension of a many-sided story that has everything to do with our common humanity.

The convicted murderer’s mother (Susan Graham, center) feels powerless to alter his fate in “Dead Man Walking.”
Ken Howard

”Dead Man Walking” is an opera from the year 2000 by a librettist who was already highly accomplished in stage and film craft, and a gifted songwriter who, in this, his very first shot at opera, would write something big-picture beautiful, orchestrally rich, and emotionally true. McNally’s 2019 Tony Award for lifetime achievement came because of Broadway hits like “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” “The Full Monty,” “Master Class,” and “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune.” If critical reaction to Heggie’s opera was mixed at first, audiences and singers were enthusiastic. Although Broadway shows never really abandoned traditionally tuneful music, the influence of mid-century modernism still affected opera at the turn of the century, and many works of the same vintage were distanced from the romantically inflected language that Heggie favored.

But Heggie emerged at the right time. He has written nearly 300 songs and a steady stream of new stage works. In fact, Heggie gives McNally credit for the idea of his 2010 “Moby-Dick,” which made it to Chicago Opera Theater in April of this year.

The “Dead Man Walking” staging by Leonard Foglia is forbiddingly evocative of institutional steel and fluorescence when it needs to be. A streamlined, multi-platform set on lifts by Michael McGarty and projections by Elaine J. McCarthy together allow for seamless switching from the claustrophobia of a prison cell on death row to a Louisiana children’s schoolroom, a lakeside trysting area, a highway mirroring Sister Prejean’s anxious journey, and the forbidding prison labyrinth among spaces swiftly summoned.

But what sticks in the mind is the music’s explosive expansion of the plot at every turn. Conductor Nicole Paiement, in her masterful Lyric Opera debut, is a new-music specialist who has devoted much of her recent career to helping worthy operas receive traction with second and third productions. Paiement took excellent care of the singers, including the nest of little ones who sang their cheerful song of Christian love, “He will Gather Us Around,” with the sisters, in a scene that directly followed the profoundly brutal prologue, where two teenage lovers, frisky from a dip in the lake, are shortly overcome by Joseph and his brother, who are drunk, drugged and deadly.

As Death Row Joseph, the bass-baritone Ryan McKinny proved himself capable of singing while doing several dozen push-ups to burn off some bad news about his request for a stay of execution. As Sister Prejean, soprano Patricia Racette traced a journey of self-doubt that was at least as physically and emotionally demanding. The two are locked in a battle of empathy and terror, and their scenes separate and together are as devastating as anything I have seen on the Lyric Opera stage in recent memory. To be sure, there are moments of extraordinary grace, as when Owen Hart, the bereft father (played by bass-baritone Wayne Tigges) of the murdered girl, asks Prejean to visit him when it’s all over. But it’s not often that you can say the most riveting episode in the opera may be the long minutes at the end, when there is no music at all.

Nancy Malitz is a Chicago freelance writer.