Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Douglas Messerli | "The Face of God" (on Terrence MacNally's and Jake Heggie's opera Dead Man Walking)

the face of god
by Douglas Messerli 

Terrence MacNally (libretto, based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean), Jake Heggie (composer) Dead Man Walking / Santa Monica, California, The Broad Stage, Santa Monica College Performing Arts Center, Sunday, March 8, 2015

Jake Heggie’s opera Dead Man Walking, based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean and the 1995 movie directed by Tim Robbins, is a powerful and incredibly moving work that in its intensity is also somewhat difficult to endure. If by the end of the first act, one feels worn out as the result of the story’s horror and sorrow and the demands of its audience’s empathy and tears, by the opera’s end, whether or not one is convinced of the transformative power of human and spiritual love, one is still left with a third corpse on stage which the society itself—and the audience as part of that society—has allowed to happen. No matter what one feels about capital punishment, and its justification for an act that so brutally left two young adults dead, one cannot but find it difficult to match the faith and generosity of heart expressed by the work’s major character, Sister Helen and the seemingly inexhaustibility of the singer, Jennifer Rivera.
      Certainly Heggie’s soaring and roiling score (which, fortunately, only occasionally, borders on well-written film music) and Terence MacNally’s well-honed script is somewhat manipulative. And even from its earliest scenes of The Prologue the opera understandably sanitizes the rape of the young girl, the shooting of the young boy, and the numerous stabbings of the girl after she screams in reaction to the boy’s death. Despite the operatic nudity of its characters and a quite literal enactment of rape, no amount of balletic simulation can capture the crude monstrousness of the original act. And, accordingly, particularly since we are haunted with the ghosts of these two beautiful children throughout the rest of the opera, the dramatization cannot fully signify the loss and horror later claimed by the parents and friends. And no matter how horrible we know the murderer, Joseph De Rocher (Michael Mayes), to be, we are able to more fully sympathize with him than we possibly could be in “real” life. Although Michael Mayes as Joseph, quite brilliantly, through both voice and theatrical interpretation, conveys the original’s hubristic dismissal of all guilt while yet embracing of “the bad man” he recognizes himself to be, a singing jailbird, even one heavily tattooed and coarse, is simply not as horrifying as a disdainful, swearing survivor waiting out his end in the Louisiana prison in Angola. Indeed, given the character’s swagger, we have difficulties in comprehending his terrifying fear of death, and his determination to request his new epistolary pen-pal, the naïve Sister Helen, to be his spiritual survivor.

      The composer and writer also stack the deck more than a little by beginning the opera in the children’s mission where Helen, along with Sisters Rose (the powerfully-voiced Talise Trevigne), Catherine and Lilianne, work with their children in near-perfect harmony as they sing out the spiritual, “He Will Gather Us Around Him”—which gradually becomes an anthem for Helen throughout the rest of the opera. Strangely, and I am sure unintentionally, such a joyful presentation of her life among the obviously socially and financially disadvantaged children, suggests why this loveable being might have gone looking for new challenges, quickly made apparent in her decision to meet with the much-hated prisoner. Despite the assertion of Rosie and others that Helen should stay at home and minister to those who daily need her, the nun-on-the-run (as Heggie engagingly described her in a pre-opera discussion), is determined to challenge herself by encountering a real evil that the audience does not yet completely comprehend.
     Accordingly, her long trip to Angola, which becomes a kind of metaphorical journey into hell, and which is quickly transformed into a symbolic voyage to love and God, seems overlong and a bit inexplicable. It is only when she finally arrives at the prison and meets with the cynical and rather ungodly prison Chaplin Father Grenville (John Duykers) and the head warden that we begin to perceive the horrific world in which she has become involved.

     The paired-down production at the Broad theater used moveable prison gates to suggestively convey not only a much larger prison community but, by keeping the scenery in constant motion, recreated the psychological dimensions of a woman (and this a case a previously secluded woman) being suddenly tossed into a world of violent, testosterone-driven, and despairing men. If she is terrified, Helen is also drawn to this desolate spot to prove her own “marriage” to God.
     In fact, however, it is not the prisoners who become her biggest challenges, but their families, both De Rocher’s obviously lower class mother (performed by the remarkable Catherine Cook) and her other children—who equally turn to Helen for spiritual support—but the horrifyingly cold-hearted and intensely angry parents of the dead children, dramatically realized by Robert Orth as Owen Hart, the father of the murdered girl, reprising his original role. By the time Helen determines to stand by Joseph through the inevitably failed hearing to spare his life, the sides have been drawn and, whether or not she has determined to stand with or against this horrible sinner, she is clearly made to feel that she has chosen to join forces with the devil instead of God. 
   If the opera, heretofore, has alternated between soaring arias of hope and belief and dour proclamations of doubt and eternal sorrow, it now bursts into a cacophonous chorus of impossible disharmony, as Helen falls into a faint, famished from not only a failure to eat but out of the real possibility that her faith is insufficient to heal the huge gash in the human weal De Rocher has left behind.

     The audience members seemed almost stunned as they stumbled to the restrooms during the intermission. Surely the opera had no choice to be release them from the tears it had revealed in Act I. Yet Act II begins with both central figures suffering terrible dreams, De Rocher terrified of now being “a dead man walking,” and Helen conjuring up the ghosts of his victims. Once more Sister Rose attempts to not only allay Helen’s fears but to allow her a way out of the box of commitment into which she has allowed herself to be entrapped. Yet suddenly, after Helen speaks of difficultly of forgiveness, Rose grows into a full dimensional figure as she proffers the possibility that Helen has, herself, not yet fully forgiven Joseph De Rocher for his sins. Her aria suggesting that such nonjudgmental love is almost always one without words is perhaps one the most beautiful in an opera of high lyrical intensity. And it is Rose’s advice upon which the remainder of the opera pivots. How, we wonder, will Helen find a way to forgive someone who not only does not seek forgiveness, but refuses to forgive himself by remaining in a shell of self-denial, blaming his brother for his own horrific actions.

       While the first act represented a nightmarish voyage for all its figures, the second act attempts to reveal, often in very small increments, how that nightmare might come unwound and even redeem some of the many sufferers of these traumatic events. If Rose has described how mothers show their children how they love and forgive, Joseph’s rather inarticulate mother stunningly articulates her love by refusing to see her son as the murderous adult he now is, endowing him instead with all the memories she has of him as a porpoise-like child (the porpoise itself being a standard Christian symbol of God and God’s love). Her simple request for a family photograph is so poignantly painful in its ridiculous attempt to commemorate what everyone would want forgotten, that director Brian Staufenbiel, turns the scene into a long frieze that emblematizes the moment—revealing it for the folly and desire for a normative life made clearly impossible by social, cultural, and political events. If there was one moment in this opera that spoke out against the absurdity of taking a human life in order to demonstrate society’s horror of murder, it was this. For in that single snapshot, life becomes eternal; a dead man does not exist in a work of art, however ordinary it is, and even if that artifact is destroyed or lost.
    Stubborn to the end, Helen ultimately forces the frightened prisoner to confess, in her mind, freeing him to be forgiven by God. But, in fact, his confession, as he has argued all along, does not free him as much as it frees her and all the others against whom he has so transgressed. She is now able to truly forgive him. But her expression of that forgiveness is not in a touch, a silent act, a reiterated gentility, but in her insistence that she herself is the embodiment of God, and that in his greatest moment of fear, if he only look into her face, he will see love—which, ultimately, in this work, is the same as God.
    In short, Sister Helen, instead of mystifying the presence of God, has, almost in an act of apostasy, turned the Holy into a kind of graven image, her own. But this work is not, fortunately, a religious text. And we can, of course, forgive her in the fact that she has humanized the mysterious presence Who cannot be named. His name is legion, and He is us. Such a secular theology, finally, is one we can all, even the most reprehensible among us, embrace.

Los Angeles, March 10, 2015

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