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Dark Sisters This Way Come

November 12, 2011

Dark Sisters at Gotham Chamber OperaTrue to its title, Dark Sisters opens with five women, dressed in floor-length white dresses, in tableau against a clouded, thunder-laden dark sky. With emotions churned by a lunar eclipse, the “sisters” (read: wives) in a polygamous compound in the American Southwest bemoan the feds’ seizure of their numerous children. Although they are not of one mind as regards their “Father” — the God-appointed prophet (sung by Kevin Burdette) — and their supposed free choice to remain in the compound, their common fate as objects of his obsession is reflected in music that hovers around the same minor tonality for virtually the entire first act.

Based on the two most famous raids on the polygamous compounds of the breakaway Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) — the 1953 raid at Short Creek, Arizona, and the 2008 raid at the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado, Texas — the new opera by hot, still-young composer Nico Muhly and librettist Stephen Karam received its world premiere (playing through Nov. 19) in New York at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College, some five long blocks from Carnegie Hall. Co-commissioned and coproduced by Gotham Chamber Opera, a small company that usually mounts rarely performed works from the Baroque era to the present; by Music-Theatre Group; and by Opera Company of Philadelphia, the production uses seven singers and a fine orchestra of 13, conducted by Neal Goren (once Leontyne Price’s exclusive musical collaborator — oh, must he have stories to tell!).

The Dish

There are plenty of stories to tell here, as well, but they come out slowly. Equally slow to appear are the cracks in the sisters’ emotional armor.

Eliza (sung by Caitlin Lynch) is the woman who most bares her soul. Sent to the compound at age 16 by her parents, she now discovers her 15-year-old daughter (Kristina Bachrach) being called to serve as another of Father’s many wives.

The music constantly churns while rarely rising above the emotional haze.

To this conflict are added a collective uncertainty over whom Father will be “called” to sleep with tonight, not to mention the emotional instability of Ruth (Eve Gigliotti). As I learned in a brief, postopera chat with Muhly, Ruth is but one of the roughly 20,000 women in current FLDS compounds who are liberally laced (or self-laced) with Prozac and other easily obtained medications to keep them in check. Hence, music that constantly churns while rarely rising above the emotional haze.

Some eruptions occur, including a droll hissy-fit between two women, and Eliza’s barely suppressed terror as Father chooses her body to be the latest depository of “God’s seed.” The synopsis declares that she intentionally schemes for this, as her means to travel from the compound with Father and somehow make her escape, but what we see and hear is far more ambiguous.

The orchestra responds accordingly. Beneath and around the vocal line, artful percussion and woodwind punctuation offer some relief from the haunting darkness of a slowly developing score that seems more modern than moving.

It’s only in the shorter, second act of this under-two-hours opera that things come to a head. Here the clouds of the compound are exposed to the artificial light of ABC News. Interviewed via satellite by “King” (again Burdette), some of the women do their best to toe the party line. Others are far more equivocal. While Eliza uses the opportunity to share that she was married underage and to announce her departure, Ruth cracks wide open and leaves the room.

The slowly developing score seems more modern than moving.

Later that night, Ruth commits suicide. Although the women rejoice that their children have been returned, the final scene finds them mourning at Ruth’s gravesite. Lucinda, wishing that her mother had taken her life instead, glows at the thought of her life with Father.

Although director Rebecca Taichman skillfully animates the first act as if the women just occasionally awake from sleep, she and set- and video-designers Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer stumble in their second act, black-and-white video projections. Rather than showing the women televised in real time, they rely on faultily synched preedited clips that prove more distracting than telling.

As the curtain falls, it’s hard not to wonder whether the compound can fully return to business-as-usual. (More Prozac, please!) It’s equally difficult to suppress the sense that, despite unquestionably beautiful music and carefully parceled out conflict, Dark Sisters is better at engaging the mind than touching the heart.

Light Amid the Dreariness

Dark Sisters at Gotham Chamber OperaMuhly, who began to workshop the opera in 2008 (when he was not yet 27), has tailored his music to his singers’ strengths. And what singers they are! Lynch, for one, sings with as much eloquence as Muhly and librettist Karam allow. Her ability to convey sadness invokes the artistry of that gifted soprano Melody Moore, San Francisco Opera’s moving Heart of a Soldier lead, who is slated to star in the 2012 New York City Opera American premiere of Rufus Wainwright’s Prima Donna.

Absolutely astounding is Jennifer Check (Almera). A large-bodied woman who sails up to a substantial, gorgeously voiced high D, then embraces her softer passages with equal artistry, Check possesses eloquence and an assurance that stand out among singers who regularly appear in major houses. Gigliotti, for example, just sang the valkyrie Sigrune at the Metropolitan Opera, and Margaret Lattimore (Presendia) and Jennifer Zetlan (Zina) have sung there, as well. The lighter-voiced Bachrach, who recently graduated from Mannes College, shows great potential, though the stolid Burdette was probably far juicier as Papageno and Leporello with NYCO. Virtually all these singers would sound right at home in the War Memorial Opera House or Davies Symphony Hall.

I’m eager to see whether Muhly and Karam revise the opera, once the run ends. As it now stands, Dark Sisters cries for brilliant bolts of lightning amid its occasional electronic thunder.

Jason Victor Serinus is a music critic, professional whistler, and lecturer on classical vocal recordings. His credits includes Seattle Times, Listen, Opera News, Opera Now, American Record Guide, Stereophile, Classical Voice North America, Carnegie Hall Playbill, Gramophone, San Francisco Magazine, Stanford Live, Bay Area Reporter, San Francisco Examiner, AudioStream, and California Magazine.