PERFORMING ARTS

John Packard as Joseph De Rocher and Theodora Hanslowe as Sister Helen Prejean in the opera
John Packard as Joseph De Rocher and Theodora Hanslowe as Sister Helen Prejean in the opera "Dead Man Walking." (By Mike Defilippi -- Baltimore Opera Company)
Friday, March 17, 2006

Eric Lowen and Dan Navarro

Eric Lowen and Dan Navarro ended the first of two sold-out Rams Head shows on Wednesday with a casual, unamplified performance of the Pat Benatar hit "We Belong," surrounded by a crooning crowd. It wasn't just the romantic ballad that made listeners' eyes misty: Lowen and Navarro, who have been writing and playing together for almost 20 years, are making what is likely their farewell tour.

Unlike their obvious progenitors Simon & Garfunkel, they're not being split by acrimony. Lowen has Lou Gehrig's disease -- "the closest connection I've ever had to professional baseball," he quipped. His disease was diagnosed on St. Patrick's Day 2004, and a song inspired by the illness, "Learning to Fall," bore an appropriate Celtic lilt. At the end of the giddy waltz, Lowen pushed his voice into a high harmony, almost a wail, triumphant. He showed no difficulty playing sometimes gentle, sometimes defiant finger-picked guitar and mandolin -- or lifting a glass of merlot.

Phil Parlapiano added a jazz edge with keyboards and squeezebox, and Robbie Magruder on drums and J.T. Brown on bass brought the rhythm. Navarro sang low harmonies and most of the leads, including lyrics that took on a certain pathos, such as: "Facts I could not erase/Exploded in my face/What I could not repair/I just left lying there."

Lowen and Navarro's legacy will be strong. At best, their songs hit on fundamental truths with a simplicity that is moving beyond expectation.

What will be missed most are the men's vitality and affection. Recalling a recent tribute concert in Austin, Lowen recounted his partner's damp eyes: "I think he was cryin' because he was out of tune or something."

-- Pamela Murray Winters

Baltimore Opera

Jake Heggie's "Dead Man Walking" is a first-rate opera that received a strong performance from the Baltimore Opera Company on Wednesday evening at the Lyric Opera House. The opera is a clear-eyed and moving exploration of capital punishment as seen through the eyes of Sister Helen Prejean, whose novel on her encounters with death row inmates sparked Tim Robbins's 1995 film of the same title. With a tightly crafted libretto of Terrence McNally and Heggie's attractive if overly smoothed-out score, the opera sensitively deals with themes of cruelty, forgiveness and redemption.

American mezzo-soprano Theodora Hanslowe gave a stunning portrayal of Sister Helen, capturing the conflicting dedication and doubt of a nun who seeks to rescue a convicted murderer from his demons. The role of the condemned criminal, Joseph De Rocher, was taken by baritone John Packard, who gave a searing performance filled with ardor and pathos. Soprano Diana Soviero sang with equal parts power and beauty as De Rocher's loyal mother, while several other cast members, including Kishna Davis as Sister Rose and Kelly Anderson as the father of murdered girl, artfully filled their parts.

Patrick Summers -- who conducted in the world premiere performances in San Francisco in 2000 -- elicited supple playing from the orchestra. Rarely straying from a narrow tonal center, the orchestration becomes somewhat predictable over the two acts. Thankfully, the alternating rhythmic and lyrical passages provide consistently nurturing support to the vocal solos and ensembles, which are superbly crafted and emotionally engaging.

Without taking sides or ultimately resolving the larger moral questions, this opera smartly reflects the gray area of the death penalty debate. The performance repeats tonight and Sunday afternoon.


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