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Dead Man Walking

Dead Man Brilliant

Dead Man Walking

Dead Man Walking, State Theatre, September 27-October 8; ph: Ticketmaster 136 100 or www.ticketmaster.com.au.

If you think you know all about Dead Man Walking because you saw the movie or read the book, think again. As opera-theatre it takes on so many extra dimensions through the music (Jake Heggie), libretto (Terrence McNally) and Nigel Jamieson's characteristically sophisticated multi-media direction and presentation, as to be an entirely new experience.

On the other hand, for those unfamiliar with the story of how Sister Helen Prejean befriended an infamous Louisiana murderer, Joseph de Rocher, and helped him (and herself) towards self knowledge, forgiveness and redemption, the telling of it in this modern opera (first performed in San Francisco in 2000) is both absorbing and shocking. And that's without even beginning to think about Teddy Tahu Rhodes as the initially unrepentant, angry, condemned Joe, and Kirsti Harms as his salvation, Sister Helen.

Dead Man Walking confronts on many levels: what price forgiveness? What is love? Can compassion triumph over revenge? Where is the humanity in the desire to fulfill the dictum "an eye for an eye" and make it a life for a life? The opera pulls no punches, opening with an unequivocal eerily filmed enactment of the crime when a pair of Louisiana high school sweethearts were spied upon as they skinny-dipped and then began "fooling around" - only to be set upon by the de Rocher brothers, with vicious and fatal consequences.

The audience is immediately placed in the position of full knowledge: there is no mistaking what went on in the woods. Rape and murder is rape and murder - but is judicial murder any kind of answer? The grieving, raging and bewildered parents of the victims demand and even relish the punishment; in the end, however, it becomes apparent that de Rocher's death does not give them the solace they seek as much as his final acceptance of his crime and his asking them for forgiveness.

To reach that point, all parties to this terrible and intensely human story have long and arduous journeys to undertake. Helen Prejean was initially a most reluctant and unlikely advocate: her first obstacle was simply driving in the oppressive Southern summer heat the 141 miles to the state penitentiary. In doing so she left behind her conventional convent life where devising ways of turning around truanting inner city kids was her greatest challenge. Befriending de Rocher meant facng the challenge of finding god in a godless situation.

In this production at least, that challenge seems to be made somewhat easier by the casting of star baritone Tahu Rhodes as the murderer. He is not only one of contemporary opera's finest performers but is also an undeniable pin-up and sex symbol. It makes for an especially interesting speculation for the audience: is the love of God and the love of woman fighting the good fight within Sister Helen's modest bosom? In this instance the answer would have to be: yes, probably. At the same time, the work itself and the performances do nothing to cheapen or exploit the situation, it is simply hanging in the air - a further conundrum to consider. Then again, the fact that these two create between them an unshakeable core of great singing, acting and honest drama should not be allowed to overshadow the all-round excellence of the rest of the cast. These include a beautiful performance from Elizabeth Campbell as de Rocher's mother, Tiffany Speight (Helen's friend and colleague Sister Rose), Warwick Fyfe as one of the vengeful fathers and Jud Arthur as a rocklike prison governor; as well as a less predictable standout in Hayden Tee as the oleaginous, combed-over, zealot-priest, Father Grenville.

Heggie's music is somehow very American and by that I mean there are ancestral echoes of Copland, Bernstein, Gershwin and an overlay of the South with "negro spiritual" themes running through it. He makes effective use of dramatically counterpointed duets, especially one instance where two soprano voices intertwine and soar on the topic of murder; and there is an electrifying grouping of the victims' vengeful parents as they take on the all-forgiving yet perhaps not all-seeing Helen.

In the Sydney production, the State Theatre's small but lofty stage is transformed by Dan Potra into a chilling evocation of the steel barred monstrosities that signify incarcerated living. The very fine orchestra and their conductor, Paul Kildea, are its permanent inmates, dressed in prison drab and seated behind bars on three levels. Between the two wings is a steeply raked stage backed by the rise and fall of a steel mesh wall - which doubles as movie screen for the occasional and highly effective film footage and live video sequences.

We know from the award-winning and much-travelled Honour Bound that director Nigel Jamieson is not only brilliant at this kind of multi-media drama with morals, but is also a very fine director of the frail humanity entrusted to his hands. His singers act and his actors sing; he moves choruses of kids, inmates and ordinary folk around a tight and tricky playing area to great dramatic effect and meaning.

Midway through its Sydney premiere production of 10 performances, the audience in the State Theatre on Wednesday night was absorbed and many visibly emotionally moved. It would have been so much easier to tug at heart strings through mawkish sentimentality and manipulation but neither the composer, librettist nor the Sydney principals do any of that. Rather, the uncompromising honesty of the story's telling and the integrity of its interpretation for the stage, meant that all who gave themselves up to it came away richer and sadder for the experience. The applause at the end was muted but not unappreciative of the brilliant and brave undertaking of which we were privileged to be a part. I believe Amnesty International are doing well from the sign-up-and-be-counted stall they run in the foyer each evening.

An interview with Hayden Tee can be heard in episode 47 of StageCast.

An interview with Anthony Callea can be heard in episode 46 of StageCast.

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