Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

La Bohème, Manitoba

Manitoba Opera’s first production in nine years of Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème still stirs the heart and inspires tears with its tragic tale of bohemian artists living — and loving — in 1840s Paris.

Arizona Opera Presents Don Pasquale in Tucson

On April 12, 2014, Arizona Opera opened its series of performances of Donizetti's Don Pasquale in Tucson. Chuck Hudson’s production of this opera combined Commedia dell’arte with Hollywood movie history.

Will Don Quichotte Be the Last Production at San Diego Opera?

This quotation from Cervantes was displayed before the opening of the opera’s final scene:

“The greatest madness a man can commit in this life is to let himself die, just like that, without anybody killing him or any other hands ending his life except those of melancholy.”

Gound Faust - Calleja and Terfel, Royal Opera House London

Gounod's Faust makes a much welcomed return to the Royal Opera House. With each new cast, the dynamic changes as the balance between singers shifts and brings out new insights. In that sense, every revival is an opportunity to revisit from new perspectives. This time Bryn Terfel sang Méphistophélès, with Joseph Calleja as Faust - stars whose allure certainly helped fill the hall to capacity. And the audience enjoyed a very good show.

Syracuse Opera’s Porgy and Bess
Got Plenty O’ Plenty

The company ends its 2013-14 season on a high note with a staged performance of Gershwin’s theatrical masterpiece

A New Rusalka in Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s new production of Antonin Dvorak’s Rusalka is visually impressive and fulfills all possible expectations musically with unquestioned excitement.

Karlsruhe’s Mixed Blessing Ballo

The reliable Badisches Staatstheater has assembled plenty of talent for its new Un Ballo in Maschera.

Louise Alder, Wigmore Hall

This varied, demanding programme indisputably marked soprano Louise Alder as a name to watch.

Luke Bedford: Through His Teeth, Linbury, Royal Opera House

Can this be the best British opera in years? Luke Bedford’s Through His Teeth at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Theatre is exceptional. Drop everything and go.

Powder Her Face, ENO

As one descends the steel steps into the cavernous bunker of Ambika P3, one seems about to enter rather insalubrious realms — just right one might imagine, then, for an opera which delves into the depths of the seedier side of celebrity life.

Iphigénie Fascinates in the Pfalz

Kaiserslautern’s Pfalztheater has produced a tantalizing realization of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide, characterized by intriguing staging, appealing designs, and best of all, superlative musical standards.

ROH presents Cavalli’s L’Ormindo at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London

Never thought I’d say it but......

Harrison Birtwistle, Elliott Carter, Wigmore Hall, London

Celebrating the 80th birthday of one of the UK's greatest composers (if not the greatest), this concert was an intriguing, and not always stimulating, mix. Birtwistle with Carter makes sense, but Birtwistle with Adams does not - or at least only within the remit of the concert series. The concert was actually entitled “Nash Inventions: American and British Masterworks, including an 80th Birthday Tribute to Sir Harrison Birtwistle” and was the final concert in the “Inventions” series.

Requiem for a Lost Opera Company

On Wednesday, March 19, 2014, General Director Ian Campbell of San Diego Opera announced that the company would go out of business at the end of this season. The next day the company performed their long-planned Verdi Requiem with a stellar cast including soprano Krassimira Stoyanova, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, tenor Piotr Beczala, and bass Ferruccio Furlanetto.

The Met’s Werther a tasty mix of singing, staging, acting and orchestral splendor

Visual elements in Richard Eyre’s striking production offset Massenet’s melodic shortcomings

Chicago’s New Barber of Seville

New productions of repertoire staples such as Gioachino Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia bear much anticipation for both performers and staging.

Lucia in LA: A Performance to Remember

On March 15, 2014, Los Angeles Opera presented Elkhanah Pulitzer’s production of the opera, which she set in 1885 when women were beginning to be recognized as persons separate from their fathers, brothers and husbands. At that time many European countries were beginning to allow women to own property, obtain higher education, and choose their husbands.

San Diego Opera Presents an All Star Ballo in Maschera

On March 11, 2014, San Diego Opera presented Verdi’s A Masked Ball in a traditional production by Leslie Koenig. Metropolitan Opera star tenor Piotr Beczala was Gustav III, the king of Sweden, and Krassimira Stoyanova gave an insightful portrayal of Amelia, his troubled but innocent love interest.

Anne Schwanewilms, Wigmore Hall

From the moment she walked, resplendent in red, onto the Wigmore Hall platform, Anne Schwanewilms radiated a captivating presence — one that kept the audience enthralled throughout this magnificent programme of Romantic song.

Die Frau ohne Schatten, Royal Opera

Magnificent! Following the first night of this new production of Die Frau ohne Schatten, I quipped that I could forgive an opera house anything for musical performance at this level, whether orchestral, vocal, or, in this case, both.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Eve Gigliotti as Ruth [Photo by Richard Termine]
14 Nov 2011

Dark Sisters, New York

They’re no longer just door-to-door missionaries with a science fiction theology and strange underwear! What with a presidential candidacy and a hit Broadway musical, the Mormons are having their breakout season in New York.

Nico Muhly: Dark Sisters

Eliza: Caitlin Lynch; Ruth: Eve Gigliotti; Almera: Jennifer Check; Presendia: Margaret Lattimore; Zina: Jennifer Zetlan; Lucinda: Kristina Bachrach; Prophet/News Anchor: Kevin Burdette. Gotham Chamber Opera (in association with Music-Theatre Group and the Philadelphia Lyric Opera), conducted by Neal Goren. At the Gerald W. Lynch Theater. Performance of November 11.

Above: Eve Gigliotti as Ruth

Photos by Richard Termine

 

An operatic treatment was sure to appear in due course, but due course in opera-land usually takes at least a generation. Not this time! Young Nico Muhly’s Dark Sisters, about five wives of a polygamous “prophet” who has been accused of abusing his twenty-odd children, had its premiere this month in a visually and aurally sumptuous production by Gotham Chamber Opera and Music-Theatre Group that will travel in June to its co-producer, the Opera Company of Philadelphia.

RT_MG_0074B copy.pngCaitlyn Lynch as Eliza and Kristina Bachrach as Lucinda

Having no previous acquaintance with Muhly’s music, I was tremendously impressed by his skill at writing for both chamber orchestra (13 musicians) and voice. First of all, he can write for the voice, in a sensuous, gratifying way that suits the voices doing the singing. It might be called an instrumental manner: Voices, solo or in combinations in various ranges echo or mimic the way he pairs unusual combinations of instruments to shade or emphasize a line of text or an unexpressed emotion, a violin with an English horn or a flute with celesta. There are striking effects that support a scene or a moment more subtly than the high melodramatic manner opera is used to. To a scenario with very little stage action, Muhly brings vivid musical activity, interesting even when its working out is not what the listener might have expected.

For one striking example, Act I closes with the Prophet choosing to spend the night not with one of the four biddable wives who yearn for nothing else, but with Eliza (Caitlin Lynch), the wife for whom the assault of the outside world and the taking of her daughter, Lucinda, has crystallized years of disaffection. Though she is submissive in word and gesture, Eliza’s disgust at the Prophet’s marital rape—her memories of her wedding night at sixteen, her escape into fantasies (which, it is implied, have been getting her by for years)—are indicated by a subtle agitation, ripples of percussion and harp, that express her state of mind with perfect economy, and the repulsive occasion is staged with spare good taste. Compare the perfervid scenes of sexual violation in Floyd’s Susannah, Loesser’s Most Happy Fella, Ginastera’s Beatrix Cenci, Britten’s Lucretia. Britten is one of Muhly’s obvious models; so is Samuel Barber—I departed humming Vanessa’s “In stillness, in silence, I have waited for you.” But Muhly’s music could not be mistaken for either Britten or Barber; it is too lush for the former, less melodically giving than the latter.

Impressed as I was by the aural textures and the skillful mood painting of Dark Sisters, I felt distanced, confused, by Muhly’s tonal but astringent melodic language, so ambitiously displayed. There seemed, at least at first hearing, too eager a sidestep from the easily caught phrase. When not harmonizing, too many of the vocal lines sounded like recitative sung with feeling. The varieties of sound and the sheer gorgeousness of the women’s voices led us eagerly from place to place, but this aversion to anything simple or basic made the traditional hymn tune “Abide with Me,” when it turned up in the final scene, unduly attractive, a relief for the ear kept on edge. Perhaps that was the intention, the composer’s riff on our preference for neater drama and more melodiously appealing characters—his modern twist on the adage that the Devil gets the best tunes. For by this time the plot of this very internal opera had taken some curious turns, one (Eliza’s flight), foreshadowed and satisfying, others not so easy to parse. The ending is ambiguous rather than self-righteous or pat; we are satisfied and unsettled at the same time.

RT_MG_0014A copy small.pngLeft to right: Jennifer Zetlan as Zina, Margaret Lattimore as Presendia, Caitlin Lynch as Eliza, Jennifer Check as Almera and Eve Gigliotti as Ruth

As the opera begins, the women mourn for their children, seized by state authorities, and from their interwoven mourning individual natures gradually announce themselves. Their husband, the Prophet, flees to the desert—seeking communion with God’s messengers, he says—and their discontent is left to seethe and bicker and recall the past without him. Ruth has lost her children because the Prophet would not permit doctors to come from outside. Zina is proud of her new sewing machine, the Prophet’s gift; Presendia resents that gift and takes her own refuge in art. They pine for their husband and resent him; they accept the restrictions of their life, the only life they know, but rebellion simmers. And Eliza, who does not enjoy her husband’s attentions as the others do, is horrified when she discovers he has promised her fifteen-year-old daughter to an elderly friend. In Act II, on an amusing, not too forced parody of a TV news show, a self-important newscaster who clearly regards the wives as freaks, puts them on screen to discuss their polygamous plight. The women refuse to condemn their own distinctive lives. Presendia points out: “It’s not a compound; it’s a ranch … our home! … This is America! … In some states they let men marry other men!” But Eliza, as we knew she would, seizes the opportunity to escape.

Stephen Karam’s libretto is spare on action. Instead, he presents the internal drama of the female protagonists, glancing on all the expected themes with a blessedly light touch that Muhly has matched: There is just enough conflict between the wives, not too much; there is just enough sermonizing, not too much. Nor does Karam oversimplify the issue of what such women are to do with themselves if they do break free: Where would they go? How are they to live? It’s no simple matter, and Karam does not brush it off or assume that we will take a certain side (though of course, most of us sophisticated, secular opera-goers will).

This is one of the epic stories of our time, and not just for child brides on a Southwestern ranch. At adolescence, in many societies, girls are given to older husbands to forge alliances while boys are often “excommunicated,” banished friendless and unprepared to the world they have been raised to distrust. Similar tales come from other traditional societies in revolutionary times: the Hasidic Jews, the Reservation Indians, or the youth of cultures where women are veiled or circumcised and daughters ill-educated, not daring not protest traditional decisions. Raised to believe the outside world is hostile and sexually exploitive (and isn’t it?), they must choose between a known space with dependable family love and finding the courage to give it all up for the terrifying unknown. For most individuals so trapped, this is neither a simple nor an obvious choice. To Karam and Muhly’s great credit, in boiling such matters down to a 100-minute operatic presentation, they never suggest that the solutions are simple, obvious or predetermined; they do not slight the attractions to remain or those of departure. Dark Sisters is not a snide fable; it is a sincere effort to get under the human skin of the problem.

RT_MG_0022A copy small.pngKevin Burdette as Prophet/News Anchor

The production design (director Rebecca Taichman, sets and video by 59 Productions, lighting by Donald Holder) might be a textbook for the latest in multi-media opera (projections, double screens, films within films, lighting in back, in front, all around), but who ever designed a textbook this beautiful? The gray lives of the women on their ranch are expressed by their white, nightgown-ish dresses set between red-brown desert sands and blazing skies, and their visions of star-filled nights and cloudy, alluring paradises glow.

It would be difficult to single out one of the five singers playing the Prophet’s wives: Each presented a rounded, individual woman (in defiance of their near-identical costumes), and their voices were all of them warm, tactile, filling the theater in glorious interweavings with no hint of strain. When their voices reached out, as each one did in her turn, we seemed to hear their separate souls, dutiful or desperate, jealous or exalted or depressed. We came to know them, from resentful, dreamy Eliza (Caitlin Lynch), miserable, ecstatic Ruth (Eve Gigliotti), queenly Presendia (Margaret Lattimore), pert Zina (Jennifer Zetlan), determined Almera (Jennifer Check) and Lucinda (Kristina Bachrach)—whose real self (seen in Act II) may not be quite the same as the child of her mother’s fantasies in Act I. Kevin Burdette, in the two thankless roles of the Prophet and the equally unsympathetic newscaster, alone did not get a lyrical flight. He bore his deprivation with stoicism. Neal Goren conducted the orchestra and the complex interactions of instruments with voices masterfully.

One must mention that the small, handsome Lynch Theater in John Jay Law School on Tenth Avenue was filled with an enthusiastic and, by operatic standards, extremely youthful audience. They can’t all have been classmates of the composer (who is thirty), but they were clearly delighted with the opportunity to hear the music of a contemporary.

John Yohalem

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):