By JOHN DeMERS
Of all the murderers I covered as a young UPI reporter on their way to Louisiana’s electric chair, and even for the one whose execution I witnessed as a representative of the state, there was only one I thought deserved to be killed: a smirking, hateful, unrepentant monster named Robert Lee Willie. And sometime before each of those many deaths, I put in the mandatory call to Sister Helen Prejean, the voice for all those who believed the state was doing wrong.
I certainly never for one moment suspected that with Dead Man Walking – Sister Helen’s book that became an Oscar-winning movie and even an opera now on display at the Wortham Center – the woman I called for that rather predictable quote would argue for the humanity of the only man I ever wished to see dead.
Watching Houston Grand Opera’s production of the Jake Heggie/Terrence McNally collaboration is a harrowing experience. You will feel utterly drained when the final notes are sung a cappella and the character of Joseph De Rocher (a composite of Willie and a couple other Louisiana killers) lies dead on that cruciform gurney, killed by lethal injection rather than by the chair known as “Gruesome Gertie” that had been his actual fate. To Sister Helen’s credit, and especially to the credit of McNally’s no-holds-barred libretto, we are spared nothing: not the horrific nature of the rape and double murder itself, and certainly not (as is often alleged in pro-death penalty circles) the suffering of the victims or of the loved ones they leave behind.
The brilliance of Dead Man Walking is that it grants us all that, and then challenges us to find any way the most brutal killer on this earth isn’t also a child of God. There is no way, we understand from the moving strains of Heggie’s music. And there is no way, we understand from Sister Helen’s insistence that the last face Joseph sees in this world be hers, because it will be for him the face of a loving Christ. Beyond that truth, death penalty politics will have to wait until tomorrow.
Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, an alum of HGO’s Studio, dazzles quietly as Sister Helen, weaving in the proper amounts of self-doubt and some agonies of her own. And she is given the perfect foil in baritone Philip Cutlip, who plays De Rocher with every ounce of bravado he can muster until his final breakdown, in which he and Sister Helen face the unvarnished truth of what he did. Movies are a different medium from opera, and certainly Sean Penn deserved every award he got for his film performance – and for looking way too much like Robert Lee Willie, if you ask me. But Cutlip manages to deliver much the same intensity while singing all his lines – while also, at the start of Act II, doing pushups in his Death Row cell.
Frederica von Stade, an international opera star for more than four decades, is appearing in her friend Heggie’s HGO production as her farewell to the art form. Regulars will recall her tour de force performance in the composer’s Three Decembers in 2008. And they’ll understand at least one of the reasons she supports his work so passionately. Her two big moments as the killer’s mother (a role she’s been handling since the opera’s premiere in San Francisco 10 years ago) – her pleading before Louisiana’s Pardon Board and her final face-to-face goodbye to her son – are withering. She is, we come to see more clearly than we wish, yet another victim of his murders.
As in Broadway’s Les Miserables, the set of Dead Man Walking becomes the cruelest character of all. Designed by Michael McGarty and lit by Brian Nason, the huge, moving, mechanical monster of prison bars, stairs and catwalks becomes, in the end, exactly what De Rocher calls it: the Death Machine that will, with stunning premeditation, take his life.
Photos be Felix Sanchez: (top) Joyce DiDonato and Philip Cutlip take the last walk; (bottom) Frederica von Stade pleads for her son’s life.