Sunday, 25 March 2012

Dead horse flogged

Semperoper Dresden, 23/03/2012

Heggie/McNally: Dead Man Walking

Antigone Papoulkas | Sister Helen Prejean
John Packard | Joseph De Rocher
Sabine Brohm | Mrs. Patrick De Rocher
Fiona McAndrew | Sister Rose
Jeremy Bowes | George Benton
Gerald Hupach | Father Grenville
Birgit Fandrey | Kitty Hart
Matthias Henneberg | Owen Hart
Elisabeth Wilke | Jade Boucher
Tom Martinsen | Howard Boucher
Sangmin Lee | Motorcycle Cop

Stefan Lano | Conductor
Nikolaus Lehnhoff | Director

This death row opera tries to make two points: that capital punishment has no place in a humane society and that the criminal justice system should afford bleeding heart nuns every opportunity to practise come-to-Jesus reconciliatory voodoo. The second is actually pushed far more forcefully than the first, turning what would have been a straightforward Zeitoper into a protracted commentary on transgression and forgiveness. But dialogue (and breakdown thereof) on a level that Poulenc achieves is not to be found here: Joseph De Rocher’s wearying road to confession is paved with superficiality and treads dramatic water to put off what is an utterly inevitable declaration of guilt, to which a last-minute manipulation of his fears only adds a self-defeating note of extraction. Beyond mild denial we don’t get  any indication of what makes his character tick; a scene intended to show us that De Rocher is human involves him and the nun bonding over Elvis and was contrived to the point of unwatchable (this, of all places, was the time for meaningful dialogue, not awful karaoke). There was much more that could have been cut with no great loss to the drama: the interminable drive to the prison, the sister’s dream (the loose end of her doubt gets tied up with a convenient vision of the crime scene), and an overextended interlude for the inmates to leer at the visiting nun.

While Jake Heggie could have looked to Hollywood for pacing ideas, there’s no evidence he looked anywhere else for his musical inspiration. His score is for the most part forgettable atmospheric wash; tonally indeterminate note-spinning which blends inoffensively into the background. Whenever the characters experience moments of clarity tonality is established and hammered home (B major for Sister Helen’s test of faith, though forget Isolde and think sub-Korngold). Conductor Stefan Lano did his best to make this feeble material sound musically sophisticated and the Sächsische Staatskapelle, on excellent form, brought much lightness and transparency to the murk.

On the whole the singers failed to give the music character, and projection and English were very patchy (I had to read the German supertitles the entire way through). Bringing earnest conviction to the part of Sister Helen, Antigone Papoulkas (only just) avoided coming across as an insufferable do-gooder, but while her light, clear mezzo was pleasant to listen to she wasn’t always audible or understandable. John Packard’s Joseph was solid, though strain intruded above the stave and much of the text was thrown away. The smaller roles were all fine but offered nothing beyond workmanlike singing and acting. Two singers stood out: as Sister Rose, Fiona McAndrew sang with a convincing Southern lilt and avoided sounding hokey when required to supply clunking chunks of home-spun wisdom. Sabine Brohm registered sniggers from the Germans sat around me for her opening spoken lines (she had, unfortunately, to ask a lot of kvestions), but once she started singing the English was the clearest and most unaccented of the entire cast and as Joseph’s mother she gave an authentic performance of some emotional force.

Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s production  offers simple treatment of dramatic material which should be anything but. As McNally’s libretto keeps insisting, the ‘truth will set you free’, and the Personenregie is very much in that mode – characters who were blind don’t experience much in the way of conflict or self-questioning before they see the light. A point of tension in the text is that De Rocher killed a young girl and as the opening scene establishes, Sister Helen works with children, though in Lehnhoff’s staging this takes place in low light behind a scrim, and for the rest of the production Helen doesn’t react when they are mentioned. The prison is a giant black cube with garage doors which made a lot of noise as it rotated, but was configured effectively to provide a mixture of spaces. I was initially confused when Sister Helen’s dream was set there (the text makes it clear that she is back home) and thought that Lehnhoff was trying something clever, but saw that the timing was too tight to clear the cube away and so it was simply the only practical solution and yet another missed opportunity… The opera is based on the book by the real-life Helen Prejean and I got the sense that this staging and McNally’s libretto took very little dramatic licence.

This was a co-production with the Theater an der Wien (staged there in 2009), and is so far the only European staging. I hope they don’t fall for it, but it is also prime ENO bait.

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