“Dead Man Walking,” which opened the Metropolitan Opera’s season on Tuesday, is about a man trying to put off his execution. And with this show, the Met is doing its best to avoid a fatal moment of its own.
For all the glamorous gowns and champagne toasts at Tuesday’s gala, fall is arriving amid profound unease at the company, America’s largest performing arts institution. The story is the same as at many theaters: Costs are up and ticket sales are down. So the Met has raided its endowment and trimmed its offerings, putting on fewer pieces and about 10 percent fewer performances.
Seeing that some contemporary operas have attracted robust audiences, the company — not long ago practically allergic to works from after World War II — is making a hail-mary pivot: A third of the titles this season were written in the past 40 years.
That includes its first production of “Dead Man Walking,” which premiered in San Francisco in 2000 and has since become one of the most widely staged operas created this century. Its appeal is no surprise. It is based on a best-selling book and award-winning film; Jake Heggie’s soaring music is easily digested, and the storytelling of Terrence McNally’s libretto is crystal clear; its emotions are passionate.
In two acts and at two-and-a-half hours, it is also too long. Scenes almost inevitably outstay their welcomes, as if Heggie and McNally couldn’t resist just one more lush verse; on Tuesday, I often found myself simultaneously gripped and bored.
And, despite the powerful feelings ceaselessly on display, the opera never quite finds its way to riveting drama or tight conflict — even with a smartly airy production at the Met by Ivo van Hove, a pair of restrained yet charismatic stars in Joyce DiDonato and Ryan McKinny, and lavish playing from the orchestra, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the company’s music director.
The work’s source is a 1993 memoir by Sister Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun and prominent opponent of capital punishment. The movie version, released two years later, won an Academy Award for Susan Sarandon, who played Sister Helen.
Movingly plain-spoken, the book wove reams of law, philosophy, social science and theology into Sister Helen’s account of her experience ministering to two men on death row in Louisiana, building a calmly merciless case against the death penalty.
The opera bills itself as based on the memoir but leans heavily on the film. Both dramatic adaptations compress the book’s two inmates into one composite — and both jettison the public policy content in favor of a more timeless (if also blander) meditation on trust and forgiveness.
This usefully allows the material to be less of a period piece — because, happily for Sister Helen, her polemic is somewhat dated. Since “Dead Man Walking” was published, violent crime has declined, and public opinion on capital punishment has shifted.
In 1994, according to Gallup, 80 percent of Americans favored the death penalty for convicted murderers; last year that number was down to 55 percent. Death sentences and executions have both plummeted from their peaks. Now the prevailing discourse surrounding prisoners is a more general critique of incarceration and its inequities.
You likely will not leave the Met arguing about the morality of state killing. “Dead Man Walking,” the opera, is a depoliticized, strictly human story: the final days of Joseph De Rocher, who, with his brother, murdered a young couple. (The crime is depicted in a prologue set to what Heggie favors for violence, a kind of politely raucous echo of Bernstein’s rumble music from “West Side Story.”)
De Rocher stubbornly denies responsibility for the crime as his last-minute appeals are turned down. Sister Helen, who has agreed to be his spiritual adviser, calls on him again and again to admit the truth, seek forgiveness and achieve a modicum of redemption.
We witness their bond build a bit, and thanks to DiDonato, McKinny and van Hove, it’s affecting, with De Rocher’s sympathetic mother and the victims’ furious parents adding some external pressure to the central pair.
But there’s no real urgency to the outcome, no sense of deep mutual revelation or cat-and-mouse surprise or crisis of faith, even with the clock ticking and the constraints of imprisonment — the same elements that gave, say, “The Silence of the Lambs” its thrilling, perversely romantic stakes.
Instead, there is merely steady, swelling tenderness, for which Heggie’s cloudless lyricism is apt. He’s invented a sweet hymn that becomes Sister Helen’s leitmotif. For a sweeping ensemble bringing her together with Joseph’s mother and the parents of the victims, he turns to clean neo-Baroque chords, richly arranged, to balance emotion and clarity. If Heggie’s scene transitions and climaxes tend to blare, he gives voices ample room to take flight.
DiDonato, the highlight of “The Hours” at the Met last season as a solemnly mellow-toned Virginia Woolf, manages the same magnetic self-possession here, though Sister Helen’s music — unlike Woolf’s — pushes her lean, eloquent mezzo-soprano into a thin, tight high register.
Her diction is pristine, as is McKinny’s — and his warmly robust bass-baritone voice makes De Rocher’s humanity evident from the start. Among a crowded and excellent supporting cast, the mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, who originated the role of Sister Helen, has returned as a beautifully dignified Mrs. De Rocher. (It added to the poignancy that Frederica von Stade, who played the mother in 2000, was in the audience on Tuesday, as was the real Sister Helen, now 84.)
Van Hove’s characteristically spare style is showcased here even more than in his Met “Don Giovanni” last season. He doesn’t bother with cellblock bars or handcuffs, the clichés of prison drama. Jan Versweyveld’s harshly lit set is an empty box with a cube hovering above, and all the blank surfaces are used as screens for stage-filling projections of both prerecorded and live video, another van Hove trademark. Paired with An D’Huys’s muted-color costumes, the effect is of a stylized, anonymously bureaucratic present day.
The video is not generally vivid — until the final scene. Then, in silence, the camera lingers on McKinny as he is strapped to a gurney. We see, in unsparing close-up, the insertion of the needle that will deliver the lethal injection.
It is, frankly, shocking. The sequence brings into the open what is usually hidden, in a way that the opera never quite does, and in a way that feels true to Sister Helen’s cri du coeur 30 years ago.
“The secrecy surrounding executions makes it possible for executions to continue,” she wrote. “I am convinced that if executions were made public, the torture and violence would be unmasked, and we would be shamed into abolishing executions.”
Dead Man Walking
Through Oct. 21 at the Metropolitan Opera, Manhattan; metopera.org.