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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

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