The story of Dead Man Walking – a nun’s crusade to understand, reach into and ultimately find remorse in a brutal killer on Death Row – is ripe for operatic treatment. And when the librettist is leading American playwright and screenwriter Terence McNally, whose distillation of such complex issues into succinct and cutting language is masterful, the odds on its ultimate musical success are pretty good.
Dead Man Walking, RCS, Glasgow ****
Even so, it was an ambitious move on the RCS’s part to give the Scottish premiere of Jake Heggie’s first-ever opera, written in the run-up to 2000 while working obscurely in the press office at San Fransisco Opera. Under the stage direction of Caroline Clegg, and conducted by James Holmes, this student cast and orchestra give it every opportunity to shine.
The content is harsh: gang rape and double murder to start with; a full-on execution at the final curtain. In between, engaged in almost three hours of moral polemic in sharp theatrical focus, are a highly-engaged cast as varied as hyper teenagers from the RCS Juniors to the powerful and mature characterisations of senior students.
Particularly outstanding are Carolyn Holt as the crusading Sister Helen, her rich-seamed timbre captivating at every emotional level. Mark Nathan maintains a chilling objectivity as the killer Joseph. Elsewhere, there are very few weak links.
Except for the music. Heggie’s score possesses the sweeping, eclectic charm of an effective film score. As opera it falls short on genuine presence and cohesive relevance. - Ken Walton