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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Opera Review: The Wives of the Golden West

With Dark Sisters Nico Muhly creates a new American verismo.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Media frenzy: Eliza (Caitlyn Lynch) in Act II of Dark Sisters.
Photo by Richard Termine.
Nico Muhly's second opera Dark Sisters is a two-act meditation on the perils of multiple marriage, focusing on one fictional, oppressive household following the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints. It is also one of the most raw and emotionally effective American operas to premiere this year.

Saturday night at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater marked its third performance. Dark Sisters is a co-production between Gotham Chamber Opera, the Music Theatre Group and the Opera Company of Philadelphia. Mr. Muhly's opera (with libretto by Stephen Karam) tells the story of an anonymous family in an enclosed, fundamentalist community.

The Prophet (a sonorous Kevin Burdette) is the ruler of the roost, with five wives and a slew of offspring. But dissent and disaster strike the family before the opera starts: a Federal raid removes all of the children from their home. Incidents like this  happened in 20th century American history, when families had their children taken away by the Federal government, because of the illegal practice of polygamy.

The first act focuses on the interactions between the suddenly childless wives. This affords Mr. Muhly much opportunity to write for different types of female voices. He explores the different combinations effectively, having the five women sing in canon, or breaking them out into duets and later, arias. The musical idiom incorporates American hymns, folk music, Adams-style melodic fragments and straight melodic lines. The orchestration is spare and supportive, with brass, winds and piano effectively balanced by conductor Neal Goren. The only hitch: a reliance on "whooshy" desert sound effects--it sounds like something is wrong with the theater's AC.

As the plot develops, the wives bicker over the Prophet's affections. A quarrel between Presendia (Margaret Lattimore) and the pregnant Zina (Jennifer Zetlan) starts sweetly and grows shrill. Ruth (Eve Gigliotti) is revealed as a broken soul who has lost two children. The plot reaches boiling point when Eliza (Caitlyn Lynch) discoveres that her 15-year-old daughter Lucinda (Kristina Bachrach) has been promised as the bride of a "prosperous" neighbor, who is nearly 60. At the close of the act. Mr. Muhly generates a fugal ensemble of stunning power.

The second act puts the wives' distress in the media spotlight. A multimedia screen (complete with cheesy cable-news graphics) emerges. The ever-versatile Mr. Burdette breaks out a second, separate character: the newscaster "King," the host of America Tonight. The multi-talented bass plays this as a comic straight man, with an interview style somewhere between confrontation and obtuseness.

In a master-stroke of perspective, all five wives are filmed as they sing. They either appear on the screen behind Mr. Burdette, or are blown up to huge black and white images across the back of the stage. Their answers are clipped melodic phrases, obviously coached and terrified. Eventually, Ruth cracks, Eliza rebels, and melody flowers forth in the score once more. Mr. Muhly opens the scene with innocuous humor and comic moments before it explodes with nerve-jangling tension. Puccini used the same technique.

Although Eliza is the leading lady of the five wives, it is Ruth who emerges as a dramatic figure. We cringe when Zina lightly refers to her as "used up." We mourn when she tells how her children died. And when she tries to follow Eliza and leave the ranch, we grieve when she throws herself from a cliff. This is not a Tosca suicide. It is more along the lines of Butterfly. It is cleverly staged by director Rebecca Taichman (there are no parapets or trampolines) and very effective.

Dark Sisters ends at Ruth's funeral. The Prophet is back, his pronouncements now sounding well-meaning but ultimately hollow. Eliza comes back, now a member of the outside world, dressed accordingly and free from the Prophet's spell. She tries to rescue Lucinda, who is determined to go through with her marriage. The gut-kick moment comes when the daughter disowns her mother, telling her that she'd rather see Eliza dead than following a path to the outside world. The restored, fundamentalist "family" parades away from the grave, and Eliza fades away, singing the same music as Ruth when she stood on the cliff.

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