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Kentucky Opera’s ‘Dead Man Walking’ Displays Superb Voices Amid Stunning Story

Emily Fons as Sister Helen Prejean and Morgan Smith as Joseph DeRocher in “Dead Man Walking.”
Emily Fons as Sister Helen Prejean and Morgan Smith as Joseph DeRocher in “Dead Man Walking.”

Above: Emily Fons as Sister Helen Prejean and Morgan Smith as Joseph DeRocher in “Dead Man Walking.”

A “journey to the truth” is how Sister Helen Prejean, the woman at the center of the opera “Dead Man Walking,” describes her work with death-row convict Joseph De Rocher.

In Kentucky Opera’s production that opened Friday, this truth is not always a simple one. It requires De Rocher, who has raped and brutally stabbed a young woman, to admit his own sins. And it demands Prejean look at her own prejudices and weaknesses. It also takes forgiveness.

Like the characters in the opera, Kentucky Opera has been undergoing its own self-examination as it transitions from long-term general director David Roth, who died unexpectedly in July 2015, to welcoming Ian Derrer, who has chosen “Dead Man Walking” in his first season. (Derrer arrived in 2016.)

This 21st-century opera — although now nearly 17 years old — remains fresh. And this production, under the direction of Ellen Douglas Schlaefer, is definitely powerful.

The cast handles the devastating as well as subtle emotions — and the vocal demands — of this story, which is familiar because of the 1995 film “Dead Man Walking,” with Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn.

Terrence McNally’s libretto covers the intimate territory of characters' inner worlds and spins out to include Prejean’s mission, where she works with children, De Rocher’s mother and younger half-brothers. That territory is vast enough to include the families of the young women and man whom De Rocher and his other brother, who is now imprisoned for life, killed.

The cast commands the story and the score is led by mezzo-soprano Emily Fons' naïve Prejean, striving to find a way to keep her faith close to her and do the right thing. Fons' voice has the youthful quality of her character but also has maturity and clarity of purpose. (Fons also sang the role of Ruby in Santa Fe Opera’s 2015 world premiere of Jennifer Higdon’s “Cold Mountain.”)

Morgan Smith, as De Rocher, holds a steady, cool demeanor and delivers a conflicted sense of power over his own sense of himself in front of Prejean as he sings his part. At one point, he even sings after doing a string of push-ups.

Both have arias that can give listeners personal glimpses and, through their performances, carry audiences into these two very different characters’ journeys to truth.

Phyllis Pancella, as De Rocher’s mother, gives one of the most passionate performances in various scenes, particularly when she appears at a pardon board meeting and later asks, “Haven’t we all suffered enough?”

The rest of the large ensemble and Schlaefer’s work sustain the production. Her work is particularly deft in the crowded scenes at the end of Act I, especially in one that takes place outside the court parking lot with the parents of the victim. In this they sing “You Don’t Know What It’s Like to Bear A Child,” and Schlaefer arranges the singers/actors as if they are each a pillar of pain.

But in seeking truth, Schlaefer, Fons and Smith find what can be so elusive in theater: a cathartic moment and one of grace.

The Louisville Orchestra led by Joseph Mechavich deftly commands the score and builds on the story’s emotion and tension. That score includes Heggie’s swirling string sections and percussive bursts, which the orchestra skillfully plays to with attention to the story’s delicate and raw emotional moments.

Because this is the first season Derrer has chosen the lineup for Kentucky Opera, it’s a bit early to ascertain the company’s “journey to the truth.” But from the sounds and sights of Friday, Derrer seems to be paying a lot of attention to quality.

Kentucky Opera will present “Dead Man Walking” at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 28, at The Brown Theatre, 315 W. Broadway. An opera preview will be presented one hour before the performance in the Brown Theatre Rehearsal Hall. An Opera Talk Back with conductors, stage directors and artists will take place after the performance in the Brown Theatre's first-floor conference room. More information: 800-775-7777;  www.kyopera.orgwww.kentuckycenter.org.

Stephen George is President and CEO of Louisville Public Media. Email Stephen at sgeorge@lpm.org.

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