Donald Munro

Stunning ‘Dead Man Walking’ is a triumph for Fresno Grand Opera

Joseph De Rocher (Christopher Magiera) and Sister Helen (played by Laura Krumm) in “Dead Man Walking.”
Joseph De Rocher (Christopher Magiera) and Sister Helen (played by Laura Krumm) in “Dead Man Walking.” Fresno Grand Opera

Where to start in my praise of the tour de force performance Saturday night of Fresno Grand Opera’s “Dead Man Walking”?

Perhaps in a way that isn’t the most obvious. Let’s focus on Suzanna Guzmán. She played the mother of the death row inmate upon which the operatic adaptation of Sister Helen Prejean’s book about capital punishment is focused. (Jake Heggie wrote the music and Terrence McNally the excellent libretto.)

In the second act, Mrs. De Rocher, whose son, Joseph, is about to die by lethal injection for the murder of two Louisiana teenagers, has to say goodbye. He tells her he is sorry for making her go through this. She says to hush, that there is no reason to be apologize because he is innocent of the crime.

In the deeply textured and emotionally soaring world of the production in which we’ve been steeped for more than two hours, however, both of these characters – and the audience – know he is guilty.

The son wants to tell the mother everything. She can’t bear to hear that truth. The tension is palpable. In her vocals and body language, Guzmán came across as so authentic at that moment – so frightened and stubborn and sad – that it transcended the artificiality of the theatrical experience.

Everything seemed to melt away for me: the people seated around me, my awareness of the stage and design of the show, even the sense of being in the Saroyan Theatre. In that moment, Mrs. De Rocher was real. I felt her pain. Caught in her grip, the moment danced between sobering and exhilarating.

Guzmán is a good example of just how high a quality of an experience the Fresno company delivered. She has performed two starring roles at the Metropolitan Opera, including Maddalena in “Rigoletto,” and done 39 productions with Los Angeles Opera. She brought to the Fresno stage a wealth of experience, a beautiful mezzo-soprano voice and – most important – a passion for the material that made it unforgettable.

By singling out Guzmán, I don’t mean to slight the two leading roles in “Dead Man Walking” nor the uniformly excellent supporting cast.

Laura Krumm, who played Sister Helen, offered a soaring and emotionally fierce performance. Christopher Magiera, as Joseph De Rocher, brought nuance and wrenching vocals to his role. Stage director Michael Mori brought it all together in a precise and understated, yet never sterile, way.

The terrific supporting performances are almost too numerous to praise, from Jeanine De Bique’s moving second-act duet as Sister Rose to James Callon’s precisely surly prison chaplain.

Liisa Dávila and Zeffin Quinn Hollis, as parents of one of the murdered teenagers, added a fire (and a balance in terms of the capital punishment issue) with their heartfelt takes on their roles.

Liliana Duque Pineiro’s production design established a minimalist tone, including a simple but imposing set dominated by a diagonal slash of prison cell blocks.

Erik Vose’s lighting design felt expert, including a stunning moment – directed exquisitely by Mori – in which the condemned man stands for a family portrait on his last night of life.

Tara Roe’s costumes, from Sister Helen’s bland wardrobe to De Rocher’s bright orange jumpsuit, added to the texture of the production.

Heggie’s music came to glorious life with the Fresno Grand Opera orchestra, sometimes heaving like a storm, other times zeroing in on the tenderness of just one soul, under conductor Ryan Murray.

Two critical notes: The prologue of the production, in which we see the murders, was too distant and vague for me, starting the show on a tentative note. And a technical issue meant no supertitles during the first act. You can’t always foresee such difficulties, but I would have made the call to stop the show and fix the problem before proceeding. Supertitles are that important.

My only big disappointment was in the size of the audience. It was far too small for such an important and groundbreaking cultural event.

Yes, it was a busy weekend, and, yes, I realize that the subject matter might have sounded like a downer, especially on Mother’s Day weekend. But if you didn’t come out and see this production – and you’re one of those who are in the habit of remarking to me that it’s too bad that you have to go to San Francisco and Los Angeles to experience excellence – then I only have this to say: You really missed out.

Did the political beliefs of people in this region and their opinions about the efficacy of capital punishment affect the turnout? Perhaps. But even though Prejean has made a cause out of opposing the death penalty, her book (and this opera) are not one-sided polemics. There are no easy answers.

When Prejean came to Fresno in March to talk about the opera, she called the death penalty a “secret ritual” far removed from the people in whose name it is carried out. “Dead Man Walking” on Saturday shined a great and powerful light on that ritual, and regardless of how you feel about the death penalty, it was an emotional and artistic wallop. That’s what great art is about.