Like many operas, Jake Heggie's "Dead Man Walking" is a story about doomed love. The relationship between Sister Helen Prejean (mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, a Rome, Georgia, native) and convicted killer Joseph De Rocher (baritone Michael Mayes) is thoroughly chaste, of course, but nonetheless: In the lush, romantic music and in the tale of a brief, unlikely, ill-fated love, the contemporary work appealingly harks back to the enduring classics of the past.
Among the many strengths of the current Atlanta Opera production is its evocation of the spirit of bygone works. Strong performances under the direction of Tomer Zvulun highlight the drama’s classic roots, just as conductor Joseph Mechavich draws out the lush, romantic elements of the sumptuous score.
Although “Dead Man Walking” opens with a terrifying act of violence, Act 1 has trouble getting off the ground or generating much tension. The contrast between the two opening scenes — De Rocher’s pointlessly destructive murder and a children’s chorus singing a hymn — feels ploddingly obvious, formulaic and slow. In the work, characters complain evocatively about the heat, but production elements such as R. Keith Brumley’s stark set and Don Darnutzer’s abstract projections of patterns of prison bars, though fitting, have a coldness and bleakness that’s hard to warm up to.
Still, things begin to pick up the pace as Prejean journeys to Angola (aka the Louisiana State Penitentiary) to visit De Rocher for the first time. An adult chorus and some evocative staging effects imply the vastness of the prison, creating one of the opera’s most striking moments.
But, of course, the work’s true musical and emotional heart lies in the meetings between Sister Helen and De Rocher. Although “Dead Man Walking” touches on big ideas of justice, retribution and fate, its strongest moments are actually tiny and intimate.
Mayes embodies the slimy danger of Joseph De Rocher and the character’s childish self-absorption, but he also brings out a converse touch of boyish charm; the audience’s sympathy for the character is neither straightforward nor easily won, but Mayes effectively navigates that complicated territory.
Similarly, portraying Sister Helen as a sanctified force for unmitigated good would be easy, but the character that emerges — both in Terrence McNally’s fine libretto and in Barton’s nuanced performance — is intriguingly conflicted and tormented. One of the production’s most compelling threads is the sense of Prejean’s uncertainty and discomfort with her strange obsession.
The incompatible moral and emotional claims on her conscience reach their apotheosis in one of the work’s strongest scenes, an explosive choral finale at the end of Act 1 as the entire cast crowds in around Sister Helen.
Karen Slack as Sister Rose stands out in tender scenes of comfort, and the emotional pleas of Maria Zifchak as De Rocher’s mother and Wayne Tiggs as the victim’s father, delivered in heartrendingly spare arias, provide some unforgettable moments, as well.
Overall, the Atlanta Opera production makes clear why the dramatic power of “Dead Man Walking” continues to strike a chord with audiences, making it one of the most popularly produced operas of the past 20 years.
The Atlanta Opera’s “Dead Man Walking”
7:30 p.m. Feb. 5; 8 p.m. Feb. 8; 3 p.m. Feb. 10. $38-$134. Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, 2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway, Atlanta. 404-881-8885, atlantaopera.org.