Sometimes a new opera that seems not to be cohering as a musical and dramatic whole leaves you feeling disengaged. “Dark Sisters,” a chamber opera by Nico Muhly that had its premiere on Wednesday night at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater of John Jay College, is a sensitive and unusual work. But, for me, it did not finally come together.
I was often touched by the story and intrigued by the music, and I found myself rooting for the piece, wanting it to be better. Yet for all the inventive and personal elements of Mr. Muhly’s music, whole portions of the score are static and thin.
With a libretto by the playwright Stephen Karam, whose well-received "Sons of the Prophet" is currently in an extended run at the Roundabout Theater Company, “Dark Sisters” tells of a crisis for a polygamous family in a renegade Mormon enclave in the American Southwest. The five wives of a stern husband, called the Prophet, have had their children removed by state officials suspicious that minors are being abused and forced into marriage.
After a short, quizzical instrumental introduction, the opera introduces the sisterly wives in an extended quintet. With voices entering one by one, the women grieve for their children. Mr. Muhly deftly weaves vocal strands together as the music builds in astringent textures. But introducing the wives in a somber quintet is a curiously formal way to begin.
The wondrously simple production by Gotham Chamber Opera, the Music-Theater Group and the Opera Company of Philadelphia, directed by Rebecca Taichman, powerfully sets the scene. Video images on a back screen depict a dark, cloudy, expansive sky; rugged carpeting lighted in hues suggests the red earth. The women first appear in matching cream white nightgowns.
The Prophet, here the sturdy, compelling bass Kevin Burdette, is a man of utter rectitude and eerily calm authority who sees his family as a persecuted minority, just good folks trying to practice their religion. He has received a revelation and must go to the desert for guidance. And here, as the Prophet intones his plans to his wives, Mr. Muhly’s full capabilities as a composer come through.
On his engaging blog Mr. Muhly writes that his score for “Dark Sisters” draws on diverse styles: Copland’s Americana, strands of Minimalism, Meredith Monk tinged with Giacinto Scelsi’s modernism. But he has a keen ear and has handled the challenge of finding his own voice, which faces all young composers. He can jolt chords with piercing dissonances or tame them into modal calm. His instrumental writing is impressive, and the conductor Neal Goren drew rich sonorities and character from the Gotham Chamber Opera orchestra, though more agitated episodes were sometimes sluggish.
The wives maintain their attitudes of subservience by singing a mantralike chant of “Keep sweet”: music of fluttering harmonies and muttered words. But during the first act, which lasted almost an hour and felt longer, there were passages in which the music, striving to be tender toward the distraught Mormon wives, was so spare and delicate that it receded into the background.
At the opening of Act II, “Dark Sisters” almost transforms into a different kind of opera. To gain public sympathy, the wives submit to a joint interview on television, while a media personality called King (Mr. Burdette) questions them from a studio in Los Angeles. Here Mr. Muhly evokes the jittery buzz of reality television though brash, beeping orchestral music. As the wives sing in fragmented phrases, trying to stay on message, the orchestra breaks into frenetic arpeggios, an audacious touch. I wish there had been more like it.
Still, Mr. Muhly and Mr. Karam have done something right, because the wives emerge as poignant characters, especially Eliza, here the lustrous soprano Caitlin Lynch, who alone finds the courage to challenge her husband and unleashes a pent-up condemnation of the Mormon elders during the interview, calling upon her sisters to break free.
The cast includes the wonderful soprano Jennifer Check as Almera, the most self-effacing and needy sister; the mellow mezzo-soprano Margaret Lattimore as Presendia, achingly covetous of her husband’s attentions; the bright-voiced soprano Jennifer Zetlan as Zina, whose natural perkiness has almost been drummed out of her; and the appealing mezzo-soprano Eve Gigliotti as the fragile Ruth, whose mental instability is conveyed in an early scene through fractured vocal phrases and skittish orchestra riffs.
Though there is much to admire about “Dark Sisters,” the score seems not yet finished. Mr. Muhly may be spreading himself too thin.