MADISON, Wis. -

The Madison Opera production of "Dead Man Walking" is a spell-binding and breathtaking work of art.

The opera, which opened Friday at the Overture Center, is based on the best-selling book by Sister Helen Prejean about her work with death row inmate Patrick Sonnier in Angola, Louisiana. In the opera the inmate is named Joseph DeRocher.

The opera begins with the brutal rape and murder of two teenagers, who had just been skinny dipping (that one scene includes more nudity than one usually finds in a Madison opera) and ends with the execution of DeRocher.

And through its three-hour run it raises -- but does not answer -- questions of the relevance of the death penalty, the possibility of forgiveness and the futility of trying to be a friend to all in the midst of an agonizing post-murder environment.

Sister Helen becomes a friend to DeRocher, but in so doing she fans coals of anger and resentment on the part of the families of the children he murdered.

Prejean was in Madison most of the week talking with prison reform groups and she addressed a full house Thursday night at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Madison. The congregation sponsors a prison ministry that takes volunteers to prisons throughout the state.

Composer Jake Heggie was also in town for the performance, and he and Prejean took the stage to answer questions from the audience.

So much for the history. "Dead Man Walking" is a haunting and beautiful opera. It is quite lyrical, not bel canto lyrical, but not the atonal moanings of other modern operas like "Doctor Atomic," either.

It includes hymns and dances. Immediately after the murder scene opening the production, Sister Helen is seen teaching children a hymn, "He Will Gather Us Around Him." The hymn returns as DeRocher faces execution and raises the question of whether and how God judges.

Daniella Mack sings the role of Sister Helen and is on stage for virtually the entire production; it really doesn't take long before the audience sees her totally in the role and not as a singer performing the role.

Michael Mayes sings the role of DeRocher and gives a powerful performance of an angry and frightened man. His body is covered with tattoos which, apparently, take the makeup crew more than two hours to administer before each performance.

The Madison Symphony Orchestra, conducted by John DeMain, had a difficult role in the opera. Heggie's score includes rapid changes of tempo and style, and the orchestra did an admirable job of underpinning the performance without getting in the way of the performers.

The opera will be staged again Sunday afternoon.