SOMERVILLE — Thirteen years after its historic premiere at the San Francisco Opera, Jake Heggie’s inspirational “Dead Man Walking” finally arrived in New England this weekend. And it wasn’t a venerable musical organization that dared to stage a modern classic already produced more than 30 times elsewhere. Instead, it was the upstart Boston Opera Collaborative, only seven seasons old, that seized the opportunity. Four performances in the appropriately “alternative” Somerville Theatre had two different casts alternating in the four leading roles.
In most respects, BOC rose admirably to the challenge. Stage director David Gram, music director and conductor Michael Sakir, and a large production team made shrewd use of mini-mal scenery and the fresh talent of emerging young singers to follow Sister Helen Prejean’s spiritual journey with Louisiana death row inmate
Joseph De Rocher. They told the dark story of his final tortured days (poetically adapted by Terrence McNally from Prejean’s book) with simplicity, compassion, and confident musicality.
On Saturday, Stephanie Scarcella took the role of Helen. Although young for the part, she sang with a pure tone and brought a spunky irreverence to the character, avoiding pious sentimentality. She gave the needed spiritual bounce to her numerous reprises of the hymn-like tune that drives the score. As De Rocher, John Arnold sang with clarity, nuance, and style, his authentic Southern charm, drawl, and easy physicality projecting both danger and vulnerability. Their numerous Act 2 duets gradually gained momentum to culminate in the shocking execution scene.
Oriana Dunlop lacked gravitas as Mrs. De Rocher, but handled her courtroom aria with finely calibrated grief. Sarita Lilly, as Sister Rose, sang with soft lyricism and sassy humor. Fine contributions were also made by Broadus Hamilton (as Father Grenville), Nathan Owen (as Owen Hart), Allison Provaire (as Kitty Hart), Brendan P. Buckley (as Howard Boucher) and Alexandra Dietrich (as Jade Boucher). In the crowded pit, maestro Sakir coaxed some fine playing from his young players and commanded the troops (22 cast members and a children's chorus) with artistic authority.
The production's sparseness proved a virtue. The bare backstage brick wall and a row of oversize prison bars focused attention on the psychological drama. Director Gram boldly chose to have the two teens murdered by De Rocher and his brother in the
violent prologue linger onstage throughout. They even administered the lethal injections in the final scene.
Heggie was present at curtain call to enjoy the robust ovation for BOC’s most ambitious and successful production to date.