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Dead Man Walking review at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff – ‘a performance of harrowing intensity’

Lucia Cervoni in Welsh National Opera's Dead Man Walking. Photo: Johan Persson
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When Jake Heggie’s opera Dead Man Walking premiered in the US in 2000, it intensified the national debate about capital punishment.

Based on the book by the remarkable abolitionist Sister Helen Prejean, and preceded by Tim Robbins’ moving 1995 film, the opera charts the real-life journey of a nun’s relationship with a convicted murderer on death row.

This immensely powerful, one-night-only production by Martin Constantine for Welsh National Opera’s Freedom season unfolds the drama with unflinching honesty and directness. Smartly paced, it follows Terrence McNally’s libretto in eschewing polemic for moments of ordinary everyday tenderness.

There’s no doubting Joseph De Rocher’s guilt, depicted through a gut-wrenchingly savage opening rape and double murder, which is mirrored at the close by the stark brutality of his execution. Bookended by these events is an emotionally shattering yet hope-inspiring story of humanity that raises timely and universal issues of social justice, belief and human rights.

Sister Helen (Lucia Cervoni) and Joe (Morgan Smith) make potent, sensitive protagonists, matched by a superb cast that includes past and present members of WNO’s Youth Opera. As trauma ripples far and wide, Joe’s mother (Anne Mason) and the murdered girl’s father (Owen Webb) give heart-rending voice to the question: Are we “for vengeance or forgiveness?”

Karen Kamensek’s WNO Orchestra, sited on stage as part of the community, brings Broadway swagger to the bluesy score yet the focus never wavers, propelled visually by Mark Jonathan and Misty Buckley’s minimalist lighting and design. Harrowing and profound, the piece offers no resolution but instead love and redemption.

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Jake Heggie’s opera is performed with harrowing intensity by Welsh National Opera