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Dead Man Walking review at Barbican Hall, London – ‘an expertly driven performance’

Joyce DiDonato in Dead Man Walking at Barbican Hall, London. Photo: Mark Allan Joyce DiDonato in Dead Man Walking at Barbican Hall, London. Photo: Mark Allan
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Since its premiere in San Francisco in 2000, Jake Heggie’s first opera has received a slew of productions in the United States and beyond.

Based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean detailing her experiences as a spiritual advisor to men on death-row, the material had previously been made into a 1995 film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn.

Whatever the ultimate quality of the piece itself, and even without this high-profile media background, the subject is sufficiently emotive to engage any audience. In fact librettist Terrence McNally does a good job in creating a trajectory that leads us from the horrific rape and double murder committed by fictional criminal Joseph De Rocher to his eventual execution.

His character and Prejean’s inevitably steal the limelight and the bulk of the piece – though some time is given over to the parents of the victims, who are understandably not that keen to forgive him (or her). As a piece of theatre intended to advocate the abolition of the death penalty, the result is undeniably effective.

But to what extent the score provides a commensurate musical experience is debatable. Heggie writes fluently and with skill, but with little originality in what is essentially an apt, filmic accompaniment to the action.

This semi-staging benefits from most of the cast and the conductor having recently taken part in a full-scale production in Madrid. As ever the committed artist, Joyce DiDonato knows how to maximise the potential of her role as Sister Helen, while Michael Mayes shirks none of the unpleasantness of Joseph De Rocher.

The secondary roles are all perfectly sketched in, while working with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Singers and Finchley Children’s Music Group, conductor Mark Wigglesworth ensures a tight, expertly driven performance.

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Semi-staging of Jake Heggie’s fluent, if not wholly original, anti-death-penalty opera