The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Madison Opera’s “Dead Man Walking” packs an emotional punch that will leave you changed. It is that good. The last performance is this afternoon at 2:30 p.m. Don’t miss it. Plus, here are links to other rave reviews. | April 27, 2014

By Jacob Stockinger

Loyal readers of this blog know very well the name of Mikko Utevsky. The young violist and conductor is a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, where he studies with Pro Arte Quartet violist Sally Chisholm and plays in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Chamber  Orchestra.

Utevsky, who has won awards and impressive reviews for his work in music education since his days at Madison’s East High School, is the founder and conductor of the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra, which will perform its fourth season next summer. For more information, visit: http://www.madisonareayouthchamberorchestra.org  He has also been named the new Music Director of a local community orchestra, The Studio Orchestra. The ensemble has a website here: www.disso.org.

You can check out his many honors and projects by typing his name into the search engine on this blog site.

Utevsky offered The Ear a guest review of this weekend’s production of Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking” by the Madison Opera at the Overture Center. The last performance is today at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall. Tickets are $18-$108.

I immediately took him up on the offer. After all, he is a fine and perceptive writer who, you may recall, blogged for this post when he was on tour two summers ago with the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) tour to Vienna, Prague and Budapest.

Here is the review by Mikko Utevsky (below):

Mikko Utevsky with baton

By Mikko Utevsky

“The Truth will set you free.”

Here, then, is The Truth:

There are no words for art like this. None suffices. The English language is inadequate when tasked with depicting an experience of the kind to which “Dead Man Walking” belongs.

Dead Man Walking Eugene Opera

I was speechless for a long time after the final curtain, even when I finally stopped crying openly — those who know me can appreciate how rarely I am at a loss for words. The nearly full house reacted similarly, with a prolonged stunned silence before the clapping started and then built into a standing ovation. Then the whole house rose to its feet in unison when Michael Mayes took the stage for a bow.

However, I promised a review, and so a review there shall be, insofar as words can express what must be said.

The opera — musical drama would be a more appropriate term – by composer Jake Heggie (below top) and librettist Terrence Nally (below bottom) is a masterwork on the scale of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” Giacomo Puccini’s “La Boheme” or Richard Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” and in every respect deserves to stand by their side in the repertory.

If anything, the opera is more deeply human than anything in the canon I have yet seen or heard. The libretto is skillfully crafted, capturing every character in life-like depth. Its score is masterful, propulsive, colorful, and powerfully moving, with influences from Mozart, Wagner and George Gershwin apparent. Remarkably, for a composer’s first opera, it balances to the stage apparently without effort. 

Here are links to previous posts with interviews featuring composer Jake Heggie and librettist Terrence McNally:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/04/22/classical-music-qa-composer-jake-heggie-talks-about-how-writing-dead-man-walking-changed-his-professional-and-personal-life-and-left-a-mark-on-his-heart-with-the-issue-of-capi/

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/04/24/classical-music-qa-dead-man-walking-is-dramatic-not-didactic-morally-complex-neither-issue-art-nor-a-lecture-opera-says-librettist-a/

Jake Heggie

Terrence McNally

Not a note is lost from either orchestra or cast, for which joint credit should also be given to Artistic Director and conductor John DeMain (below in a photo by Prasad) and the musicians of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, who fill the pit.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

The singing is world-class. Baritone Michael Mayes lives and breathes the role of death-row convicted murderer Joseph DeRocher, portraying his inner demons with true clarity and conviction. Mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack, singing the role of Sister Helen Prejean for the first time (not that anyone would know) balances faith, doubt, and forgiveness with poignancy and eloquence.

Dead Man Walking  2 Michael Mayes and Daniela Mack

Susanne Mentzer is heartbreaking as DeRocher’s loving mother, and Alan Dunbar is equally so, standing out from the excellent quartet of the victims’ parents (with Jamie Van Eyck, J. Adam Shelton, and Saira Frank). Baritone Erik Larson, appearing as the motorcycle cop who stops Sister Helen for speeding, is also memorable, providing one of the only moments of levity in an otherwise powerfully dark show, and Karen Slack (below top) as Sister Rose exhibits powerful vocal skills and a capacity for comfort and mercy. (The photo, below bottom, shows, from left, Daniela Mack, Susanne Mentzer, Michael Mayes, Saira Frank, Alan Dunbar, Adam Shelton and Jamie Van Eyck.)

Karen Slack 2

Dead Man Walking with  (from left) Daniela Mack, Susanne Mentzer, Michael Mayes, Saira Frank, Alan Dunbar, Adam Shelton and Jamie Van Eyck

The brilliant stage direction by Kristine McIntyre (below) brings the whole production to life against the starkly effective scenery from the Eugene Opera in Oregon. The costumes, lighting and sound design are simple and successful.

Kristine McIntyre color

It would take too long to list every singer in the cast deserving of recognition, or every technical and visual aspect worthy of acknowledgement. But there is not a single weak link, and the whole company shows a total commitment to their art, from the last member of the chorus up through the principals, the orchestra, the director, Maestro DeMain, and General Director Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill), to whom eternal gratitude is due for having the courage and vision to bring this work to the Madison stage.

Kathryn Smith Fly Rail Vertical Madison Opera

This is opera. This is art. This is human expression at its most direct, at its most powerful, at its most deeply touching.

Go see “Dead Man Walking.”

You will come away changed.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Madison Opera production of “Dead Man Walking” production has received other rave reviews. For purposes of comparison, here are links to others:

Here is the review by John W. Barker (below) for Isthmus:

http://www.thedailypage.com/daily/article.php?article=42616&sid=f94c056bdd9b4be709a6a60deca6c020

John-Barker

Here is the review be Greg Hettmansberger (below) for Madison Magazine:

http://www.madisonmagazine.com/Blogs/Classically-Speaking/April-2014/Dead-Man-Walking-Conquers-Another-City/

greg hettmansberger mug

 

 

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