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Dead Man Walking                  Union Avenue Opera, 2011

Sarah Bryan Miller St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Union Avenue Opera, known primarily for its pocket productions of grand operas, stepped out this weekend in a new direction: a contemporary score, Dead Man Walking, gritty but lyrical, by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Terrence McNally.

It’s a stretch for a small group, but artistic director Scott Schoonover, director Tim Ocel and everyone else involved really knocked themselves out for this one. It’s probably the finest production that UAO has ever done.

It starts with Patrick Huber’s grim, evocative unit set. A raised platform in the center of the stage -serving as classroom, office, cell, bedroom, death chamber - is set off with movable partitions of utilitarian chain-link fence. A balcony has been added around the back and sides.

Even the side galleries of the auditorium have been pressed into service (fitted with bars to suggest cells on death row), an idea which might prove useful in the future when the size of the chorus needed for a particular production is too large to be contained on the little stage.

The huge cast, with 25 named roles, was almost uniformly well-chosen. The mezzo-soprano in the role of Sister Helen Prejean has a huge and daunting task: she’s on stage for the entire first act and for most of the second. (This might be the longest female role in that respect since Richard Strauss’ Elektra.) Elise Quagliata gave the role Sister’s Helen’s authentic strength and humor, fears and faith, and sang throughout with a dark, expressive voice that was strong in the upper register.

She was well-matched by charismatic baritone Jordan Shanahan, who gave the convicted murderer Joseph de Rocher a completely human complexity that mixed the killer’s darkness with a spiritual spark. His fine baritone voice sounded beautiful or rough in turn when his music called for it, and it was intelligently used throughout, in the service of the drama. The confession scene with Joe and Sister Helen was throat-grabbingly intense; his execution took the breath away.

Sister Rose is the voice of caution and comfort in Sister Helen’s life; soprano Marlissa Hudson’s portrayal was warm, loving and slightly sassy, with a soaring high voice that didn’t quit. As Joseph’s mother, mezzo-soprano Debra Hillabrand gave a moving, well-sung performance that conveyed her character’s grief and fears.

As Owen Hart, father of the murdered girl, David Dillard was dramatically strong; his jittering knee as he listened to Joseph’s mother talk about her son was a wonderful touch.

Among the standouts in the many smaller roles were tenor Clark Sturdevant as Father Grenville, clearly making no effort to see the face of Christ in anyone; tenor John Garrett as Howard Boucher, the unforgiving father of the murdered boy; Tom W. Sitzer and Nathan Ruggles as a pair of prison guards; and tenor Phillip Touchette in a brief, humorous bit as a state trooper.

Director Tim Ocel added meaning to every scene with his staging. One particularly effective touch that few other companies could match was to light the huge chancel window of Jesus the Good Shepherd at critical moments, particularly as de Rocher’s body, cruciform on its gurney, lay onstage at the opera’s shattering ending.

Teresa Doggett’s costumes were usually spot on, although the preschool students and their mothers seemed awfully upscale for an inner-city neighborhood; Kitty Boucher’s dress and hair were pure 1980s nightmare. Schoonover conducted a surprisingly scrappy orchestra with passion.

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