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REVIEW: Central City Opera hits hard with 'Dead Man Walking'

By: DAVID SCKOLNIK Special to The Gazette
July 10, 2014 Updated: July 10, 2014 at 2:46 pm

Last year at this time, the subject was Central City Opera's production of "Our Town." It was an excellent production but couldn't shake the legacy of the original Thornton Wilder play. This season, the company took on "Dead Man Walking," which is based upon the true story of Sister Helen Prejean's calling to shepherd a convicted murderer to his execution. It's pre-existing fame comes from the critically acclaimed 1995 film of the same name.

In this case, librettist Terrence McNally and composer Jake Heggie forged a more potent work of art. This new production rode the superior craftsmanship of its creators to devastating impact.

With almost 40 productions since it debut in 2000, "Dead Man" has had unprecedented success for a contemporary opera. The Central City incarnation brought something new to its run: remarkable individual performances and inspired stage craft placed in an intimate hall. No one was able to sit comfortably back in their seat, avoiding the searing energy of this opening night performance.

It started with the John Baril-lead orchestra. Heggie composed an ever-present instrumental fabric, kind of a sonic canvas, to place his drama upon. He used traditional and modern harmonic language to match the drama as it unfolded - all accomplished without any sense of contrivance. The orchestra accepted its role with attentiveness and intensity.

Heggie blesses his stage performers with writing that powerfully connects music and words, much as Mozart and Puccini did. The quartets, quintets and sextets were crafted as well as anything composed by Verdi. This empowered the entire cast to produce flesh-and-blood characters.

As Sister Helen, Jennifer Rivera parlayed her deep mezzo and superb acting toward her story-defining transformation. She was our tour guide through the catharsis of this work.

As the doomed Joseph De Rocher, baritone Michael Mayes captured the repulsive persona of a cold blooded murderer. His vocal production and physical presence made me rethink what is possible from an opera singer. His march toward death and final asking for forgiveness was shockingly and beautifully rendered.

Soprano Jeanine De Bique matched her rich sound to an empathetic bearing to realize Sister Rose, a performance that fueled the opera's engine of transformation.

The venerable baritone Robert Orth re-created his performance for the San Francisco Opera's world premiere as Owen Hart, the father of one of the teenage murder victims. His heartfelt performance brought to illumination one of the pieces most troubling themes: We are all victims of and responsible for the violent crimes committed in our society.

There was one performance that stood above all others. As the mother of "Joe," mezzo soprano Maria Zifchak bravely shed all the pretensions typical for a professional opera singer. It was required to bring to life a poor Southern woman facing her most agonizing moments. As beautifully as she sang, it was easy to forget that she was performing arias and duets. We were only witness to a human being whose reasons for living and loving were in peril.

A huge contributor to this unqualified success was Alan Muraoka’s sparse set design and David Martin Jacques’ stark lighting design. This was all the “tech” that stage director Ken Cazan required. He championed a production that melded into a organic whole that anyone, opera fan or not, should be profoundly moved by.

While the tragedy of “Dead Man Walking” will may leave its audiences with sadness and introspection, Central City Opera’s new production of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” will leave its audience with huge smiles plastered across their faces. Here they will revel in the many foibles of the human creature.

Set in a lordly estate in 1920s Spain, the three hours it took to sashay through this musical and comedic masterpiece was an absolute pleasure. Conductor Adrian Kelly gave the music irresistible momentum and the orchestra captured details rarely heard in performance. With the help of Madeleine Boyd’s realistic wood-paneled set, stage director Alessandro Talevi inspired his cast toward a production that rarely missed a beat.

Uniformly excellent performances were distinguished by two absolute gems. Baritone Edward Parks’ Count was stupendous — beautifully sung while calling just the right amount of attention to the confusion and hypocrisy of his “royal highness.” It’s hard to say what was more delightful: Anna Christy’s sweet and expressive soprano or the coquettish comedy she brought to her portrayal to Figaro’s betrothed, the maid Susanna.

Central City Opera’s 2014 
Summer Festival
What: New productions of Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking” and Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro”
When: Both operas in repertory through July 26
Where: The Central City Opera House, 127 Eureka St., 80427
Tickets and information: 1-303-292-6700,
Something else: As part of the 2014 festival, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic musical “The Sound of Music” will plays the Ellie Caulkins Opera House at the Denver Performing Arts Complex for seven performanc es (Aug. 2-10).

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