It’s nearing the three-hour mark since we entered the grand Lyric Opera house, and the moment we had anticipated since the outset has arrived. Joseph DeRocher (bass baritone Ryan McKinny) is now a dead man walking. That is how those tried and convicted of heinous crimes are referred to, as they are escorted in chains to their execution. He collapses, as he feared he would. The parents of the teens whom he had raped and murdered are there, among other witnesses. After he is strapped into the death gurney, a medical technician approaches and readies him for the chemicals, giving a patina of medical precision to the proceeding.
McKinny looks not at us, but at the loving gaze of Sister Helen Prejean (soprano Patricia Racette). At last he heard her admonition –“The Truth Shall Set You Free”. He apologizes to the agonizing families. Sister Helen's struggle to get to this moment – the journey this opera, like her memoire, recounts-- was rewarded. She was able to be the last face that Joseph would see, in which he would imagine Christ’s love in her gaze.
The backlit stage turns red as he departs. We are duly stunned. (Lighting Designer: Brian Nason).
Racette then sings the spiritual aria that composer Jake Heggie has laced through this operatic telling of Sister Helen Prejean’s award-winning memoire, “He will gather us around..” With more of a blue note than one anticipates in an opera performance, the melody haunts.
Though three hours in coming, this finale –in this reviewer’s view-- is more powerful than we anticipated. We feel the full wallop of this operatic-sized drama—whether we read the book, saw the movie, or were learning of it for the first time. Heggie’s music lets us feel the wild beating heart of the capital punishment debate. It’s relatively modernistic music. It feels like it is pushing Lyric’s envelope in new, and welcomed directions.
Lyric Opera Presents an Unusual Work About Capital Punishment
Bravo to Lyric Opera for joining the long list of grand, and not so grand opera houses, that have been staging Heggie’s breakthrough work for two decades. We read in the program that Heggie and librettist Terrence McNally began work on this opera in 1996. This was before DNA testing, and the likes of the Mississippi Innocence Project laid bare the horrible truth that many have likely been wrongfully executed by the state, acting as our agent.
The opening night audience seemed to have an unusually large slice of those too young to remember 1996 with adult sensibilities. Many probably never saw the similarly music-rich movie of the same name that won Susan Sarandon an Oscar--already a top grossing film when Heggie and McNally took this project on.
From the first notes, the overture flutes, oboes, and clarinet swirl to create a premonition of feeling unsettled, much as this issue does. The pace of the music waxes up and down throughout, letting us better feel the turmoil. One hears the superlative singing that one expects, and always gets at the Lyric.
If you are firmly on the side of anti-capital punishment, like this reviewer, you too may especially adore McNally’s libretto for the parents of the murdered teens. They remember their last words about what would otherwise be forgotten mundane parent-to-teen nags. How perfectly their pain is telegraphed. They beg us, as they did Sister Helen, to take in their point of view. They want us to feel their bottomless grief.
Expect some surprises too. Number one, for this reviewer, was how expertly McNally weaves moments of humor into this opera—from a traffic cop’s comic hesitation on ticketing a nun for speeding, to Sister Helen and convicted murderer De Rocher sharing memories of Elvis, and more. It’s truly delightful and makes the heavy fare of this opera go down with greater ease.
Opera regulars may also be surprised at how Susan Graham as De Rocher’s mother so effectively hides her real-world glamour, with help, of course, by the creative team, and especially Costume Designer Jess Goldstein. Though Graham has previously played Sister Helen Prejean, this reviewer cannot imagine anyone other than Racette in this role. Racette not only sings flawlessly, but seems to wear this role on her skin and soul so perfectly—replete with the get down to business gait of a Nun- with-a-mission. Similarly, it is such a delight to see a lead who really does look the part as much as buffed McKinny does.
If anything, it is Sister Helen Prejean’s certitude in answering the question, Quo Warranto? that Heggie and McNally so perfectly capture. Only Christ can judge a man, her Catholic faith informs her. How thrilling on opening night to see not only Heggie come take a bow, but also Sister Helen Prejean, whom we learn in the program notes continues her ministry for those on death row to this day.
Better, how wonderful that Heggie, McNally, and so many opera houses now also including the Lyric, have given Sister Helen Prejean’s question about capital punishment a wider hearing, in all senses. They have done with all sides on the capital punishment debate represented. Better still, that the Lyric’s stagecraft breaks new ground, including exceptional projection design by Elaine J. McCarthy, and standout fight choreography by Chuck Coyl. The nudity on stage – used very appropriately with discrete lighting especially making it so -- is also not the usual Lyric fare.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
A teenage boy Miles Borchard
A teenage girl Ari Kraiman
Joseph De Rocher Ryan McKinny
Anthony De Rocher,Joseph’s younger brother Michael Saubert, Jr.
Sister Helen Prejean Patricia Racette
Sister Rose Whitney Morrison
Children Chicago Children’s Choir
A Mother Maia Surace
Sister Lillianne Corinne Wallace-Crane
Sister Catherine Desirée Hassler
Mrs. Charlton Marie Sokolova
A motorcycle cop Christopher Kenney
Father Grenville, the prison chaplain Clay Hilley
George Benton, the prison warden Gordon Hawkins
Prison guards David Weigel, Anthony Reed
Solo inmates Joe Shadday, Nicholas Ward,Matthew Carroll, Kenneth Nichols, Nikolas Wenzel
A paralegal Emily Pogorelc
Joseph’s 19-year-old brother Eric Ferring
Mrs. Patrick De Rocher,Joseph’s mother Susan Graham
Owen Hart,father of the murdered girl Wayne Tigges
Jade Boucher,mother of the murdered boy Lauren Decker
Conductor Nicole Paiement
Director Leonard Foglia
Set Designer Michael McGarty
Costume Designer Jess Goldstein
Lighting Designer Brian Nason
Projection Designer Elaine J. McCarthy
Sound Designer Roger Gans
Chorus Master Michael Black
Children’s Chorus Master Josephine Lee
Wigmaster and Makeup Designer Sarah Hatten
Associate Director Katrina Bachus
Assistant Director David Carl Toulson
Stage Manager Rachel C. Henneberry
Musical Preparation William C. Billingham, Noah Lindquist, Matthew Piatt, Stefano Sarzani
Fight Director Chuck Coyl
Intimacy Director Tonia Sina
Dialect Coach Kate DeVore
Projected English Titles Colin Ure
Through November 22, 2019
Lyric Opera House
20 N. Wacker Dr.
About the Author: Amy Munice
Amy Munice is Editor-in-Chief and Co-Publisher of Picture This Post. She covers books, dance, film, theater, music, museums and travel. Prior to founding Picture This Post, Amy was a freelance writer and global PR specialist for decades—writing and ghostwriting thousands of articles and promotional communications on a wide range of technical and not-so-technical topics.
Amy hopes the magazine’s click-a-picture-to-read-a-vivid-account format will nourish those ever hunting for under-discovered cultural treasures. She especially loves writing articles about travel finds, showcasing works by cultural warriors of a progressive bent, and shining a light on bold, creative strokes by fledgling artists in all genres.