Last words

In August, the opera Dead Man Walking received its first international performance in Adelaide by the State Opera of South Australia. The opera, like the film of the same name, is based on Sr Helen Prejean’s book about her experiences of accompanying those on death row at Angola State Penitentiary, Louisiana, USA.

Commissioned by San Francisco Opera, the opera—created by librettist Terence McNally and composer Jake Heggie—is accompanied by highly technical scenery and lighting which heighten the opera’s impact.

Kirsti Harms, in preparing to play the role of Sr Helen Prejean, visited murderers in an Adelaide jail. She met Helen and listened to her stories, spending many hours developing the character.

This kind of thorough preparation by the cast lent credibility to the characters. Among the most powerful performances were Kirsti Harms’ portrayal of Sr Helen listening to de Rocher’s confession and Douglas McNicol’s role as Mr Hart, the aggrieved father of a murdered daughter.

The opera begins with the rape and murder of a young girl by Joe de Rocher and his brother. Sr Helen becomes a pen pal of the imprisoned de Rocher and is asked to visit him, much to the concern of Helen’s friend Sr Rose (Rosalind Martin).

Helen receives a cold welcome from Angola State Penitentiary’s chaplain, Fr Grenville. Andrew Brunsdon as prison chaplain knows that de Rocher can’t be saved; in Grenville’s eyes he’s little more than a liar.

Kirsti Harms conveys Sr Helen’s unerring determination and faith, continuing in spite of opposition.

Occasionally Harms’ vibrato clouded her diction, however in other situations its tasteful use enhances the drama of the music.

Teddy Tahu Rhodes captures the anger and confusion of Joe de Rocher. There is little to like in this character despite his beautiful body and a voice of sheer clarity and precision.

The execution scene was gripping. The families of the victim and perpetrator watch as de Rocher is strapped to the table. The slow movements of the figures and the silence of the scene are eerie. To meet the end of the performance with applause and an ovation seemed out of place, though both were well deserved. 

Christopher Wainwright is an Adelaide-based freelance arts journalist, critic and music researcher.



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