The most effective moment in the Australian premiere of this new American opera is one in which no music is played or sung. In the closing scene the convicted rapist and murderer Joseph de Rocher (Teddy Tahu Rhodes) is being executed at a prison in Louisiana.
Conductor John DeMain lays down his baton and the singers on stage fall silent after a headlong build-up. All we can hear is the electronic blip measuring a heart beat, the sighing click like elevators descending of the lethal chemicals being injected into the prisoner’s veins by mechanical means. And then flatline.
It is both the dramatic impact of this final scene and its abandonment of musical expression that underlines some of the strengths and weaknesses of this important work.
The opera is an adaptation of the book of the same name by Sister Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun who found herself drawn into the life-and-death struggles of several death-row prisoners. Its librettist, Terrence McNally, has avoided the note of sensationalism that marred the otherwise fine film version directed by Tim Robbins.