Dead Man Walking, the 2000 opera with music by Jake Heggie and libretto by Terence McNally, has established itself as a classic among contemporary modern operas, with dozens of U.S. and international productions. The San Francisco Opera, which premiered the piece, released a very fine recording of the first production on Erato in 2001, conducted by Patrick Summers. Virgin Classics has issued a terrific new recording taken from a 2011 performance at the Houston Grand Opera, also conducted by Summers, making this one of the very few 21st century American operas with the distinction of having two professional recordings.
Listeners who want to choose between the versions won't go wrong with either and fans of the opera will want both. Two of the leading performers from the original recording return; besides Summers, Frederica von Stade reprises her wrenching portrayal of Mrs. De Rocher, a role Heggie wrote for her. (Also, John Packard, the first Joseph de Rocher, sings Owen Hart, father of the murdered girl.) The newer recording has more star power, including Measha Brueggergosman as Sister Rose, Susanne Mentzer as Jade Boucher, mother of the murdered boy, and rising star Philip Cutlip as Joseph de Rocher. Heggie wrote the role of Sister Helen Prejean for Susan Graham, who left an indelible mark on the part. Joyce DiDonato is no less memorable as Sister Helen, so listeners have the luxury of comparing two excellent interpretations, as they might, for instance, in a standard like La Traviata; there are many ways of approaching a part, and listeners can savor the different personalities and voices singers bring to the role. Graham is warmer and more vulnerable, and DiDonato is more incisive, making the most of Sister Helen's wry humor. Cutlip is vocally stronger and more dramatically engaging than Packard, and brings greater range to the part, more raw menace and more anguish. In both recordings the supporting roles are well taken, and the orchestral playing is outstanding. Both versions were recorded live; the sound in the new recording has a better sense of presence and immediacy, and that gives it an acoustic edge over the first.