THE PERPETRATORS OF DEAD MAN WALKING — the opera inflicted upon the stage of Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Hall these past few nights — have gone to some lengths to distance themselves from Tim Robbins’ 1995 film of the same name and derivation. Their source, or so they would have us believe, has been Sister Helen Prejean’s original book, her harrowing death-row memoir — even though its central character has undergone a change of name from “Matt” to the more singable “Joe.” It was Sister Helen, not Tim Robbins or any of his commendable collaborators on that film, who joined the Opera Pacific cast in the curtain calls at Segerstrom. You can assume, therefore, that this strong and compassionate woman has acquiesced in the turning of her brave words into the unfocused, stumbling product that has earned the unfathomable cheers of misguided multitudes — two seasons ago at the San Francisco Opera, now here, onward and upward to a date with destiny at the New York City Opera next September.
Go back and see the film, its outpouring of moral outrage — against capital punishment and against those who wrongly set their minds against the powers of salvation — so memorably caught in the haunted, troubled eyes of Susan Sarandon’s Sister Helen and the insidious cynicism of Sean Penn’s Matt Poncelet. They are further echoed in the composite track of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s songs twined around the slash of Eddie Vedder’s and Ry Cooder’s music and even the dull ache of Bruce Springsteen’s version of the title song under the final credits. Set this consummate workmanship against the opera: stick figures of Terrence McNally’s sudsy libretto set to Jake Heggie’s appallingly second-rate assemblage of musical gestures. Dead Man Walking in its reality has turned out as abject a disaster as it first appeared on paper.
Opera Pacific’s production was actually the work’s second; those unlucky souls who have seen both tell me the San Francisco version, larger and trickier, was even more of a mess. The new one, with Michael McGarty’s skeletal sets — its up-and-down panels suggesting a chorus of unmanned guillotines — is slimmed down for travel. John DeMain conducted, as he also will in New York; although I am disinclined to delve deeply into differences between his version and that of San Francisco’s Patrick Summers — now available on Erato discs, if you care — I am sure it was strong and good. Kristine Jepson sang the Sister Helen, richly and caringly, although Susan Graham’s singing nun on disc has superior frazzle. Frederica von Stade, for whom Jake Heggie has become house composer, was once again the killer’s mother, as in San Francisco, a killer role that deserved killer music but got none.
THE PHILHARMONIC HAS GIVEN US MOZART these past two weeks, but with intrusions. Andreas Delfs, currently of the Milwaukee Symphony, led the first program, delivering a Mozart stiff and hasty, ending with the 40th Symphony, the prescribed repeats unaccountably (and inexcusably) omitted. Andrea Rost — the lovable Pamina in the L.A. Opera’s recent Magic Flute — sang two concert arias most appealingly. The intruder, a presence on the program beyond sense or value, was the 17 minutes of Chambers (as in Street), a sort of symphonic memoir of Lower Manhattan pre-9/11, co-commissioned by the Philharmonic and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and given here in its world premiere. Its composer, Theodore Shapiro (sha-PIE-ro, he insists), works in films, with State and Main his most recent score. Since that music made no impression on me the first time, I went back to check; it made no impression the second time, either. Neither did Chambers, bland and burbling. Secondhand Bernstein can only mean, after all, third- or fourth-hand everybody else.
Fond memories of Christian Zacharias’ Philharmonic visit in 2000 — as both-at-once conductor and pianist — brought an uncommonly large crowd to his return to lead the second Mozart week. The intruders this time were more welcome: fist-shaking Sturm-und-Drang symphonies by Joseph Martin Kraus and Haydn, bookending two Mozart concertos, rapturously beautiful and rapturously played. Kraus’ dates (17561792) are almost the same as Mozart’s. His C-minor Symphony, which Haydn is said to have admired, is a slice of run-of-the-mill classical writing: dark-toned, minor harmonies that never quite coalesce into real tunes; brave exercises in counterpoint that never quite turn into genuine fugues; unadventurous scoring (including, in this case, four horns instead of the usual two to provide a thick, thudding bass) that points up the inadequacy of whatever orchestral forces the composer could draw upon.
It’s good to hear this music, if only to realize the ways in which Mozart and Haydn rose above the mere craftsmen — the Jake Heggies and Theodore Shapiros — of their time. Ten measures into the grand, forthright opening of Mozart’s D-major Piano Concerto (K. 451), or 10 measures out of the first movement of Haydn’s Symphony No. 80 — with his giggling little subsidiary tune popping up in different keys all over the place, punctuated by trick silences — and you know where the likes of Joseph Martin Kraus fit into the picture. At the keyboard or out in front, Zacharias charmed utterly. Best of all was his re-creation of the essence of Mozart’s piano concertos, the warm-hearted, loving, intensely intelligent conversations between piano and orchestra.
I KEEP NOT HAVING THE SPACE TO REMEMBER one more concert of recent weeks, the County Museum’s program by the Toronto-based Penderecki String Quartet — another of those fearless ensembles that thrive unfazed on daunting new music and perform it with joy and intelligence commingled. Their program this time consisted of second quartets — Szymanowski, Bartók, Ligeti. As an encore, rather than the expected tidbit from
somewhere or other, they threw in another
whole work, the Second of their namesake Penderecki — phenomenal, complex music infused with great spirit. At the end, after nearly two hours of music that carried both technique and expression to far horizons, they
invited the audience — pleasantly large, as these events go — to come onstage, look at their music and ask questions.
It was a lovely event, the chance to hang out for nearly an extra hour with splendid,
dedicated young musicians and hear them out on, for example, what it takes to coordinate an ensemble where one performer has, say, 16 notes to play in time with another’s 15. Nobody seemed anxious to leave, and when we did it was with the sense of having been brought unexpectedly, delightfully close to some challenging creativity. More of this sort of thing should happen — not the jabberwocky of the “symposium” on the meaning of genius that preceded the Zacharias concert at the Music Center last Thursday night, but something that puts into simple, meaningful language what it is that keeps us involved in the musical world as that world crumbles around us bit by bit, and why we bother.