Young, openly gay composer Nico Muhly and librettist Stephen Karam’s new opera “Dark Sisters,” co-produced by Gotham Chamber Opera, the Music-Theatre Group, and the Opera Company of Philadelphia, and enjoying a world premiere run at the Gerald W. Lynch Theatre at John Jay College through November 19, is a beautiful and disturbing work about a polygamous Mormon splinter sect, whose premises are raided by Federal authorities, who seize all underage children of five ‘sister wives’ of one husband, the Prophet of God, known as “Father.”
When the women are in harmony, at the beginnings of the two acts, kept in conformity by repeating such mantras as “Perfect obedience produces perfect faith” and “Keep sweet no matter what,” at once simple and scary, they sing dulcetly indeed. When dissent, discontent and dissention rear their heads, their music grows more wrenchingly dramatic. While the quintet seems to exhibit brainwashed “Stepford Wives” uniformity when we first meet them, pining for children that have been torn from them, they soon emerge as individuals, complex and conflicted. Credit for guiding these ‘dark sisters,’ and realizing Muhly and Karam’s vision, goes to conductor Neal Goren and director Rebecca Taichman. Designs are by 59 Productions’ Leo Warner (sets and video) and Mark Grimmer (video); and Miranda Hoffman (costumes), Donald Holder (lighting), and Anne Ford-Coates (hair and makeup). Annie-B Parson is the choreographer.
The cast is first rate. Caitlin Lynch is Eliza, who loathes her husband’s very touch, which most of the others crave; is loath to see her 15-year-old daughter, Lucinda, forced to marry a 56-year-old man; and eventually rebels by leaving the compound the women call home. Eve Gigliotti is Ruth, whose young sons died tragiically—because of her lack of faith, she’s told—which has driven her into delusion. All seems well between Margaret Lattimore, as Presendia, and Jennifer Zetlan, as young Zina—they have their painting, baking, and sewing to keep them busy when “Father” spends the night with one of the other wives—but they vent by destroying each other’s work. Jennifer Check, as Almera, seems content and loyal as well, so much so that she will not even admit how young she was when she married. It is good to hear such singers as Check and Gigliotti, known for their work, at the Metropolitan Opera, in supporting roles, entrusted with major assignments here.
The wives are also in harmony when they agree to go on television—for what proves an exploitive exposé, an “interview with polygamy wives”—with the sole intent of pleading to have their children returned to them. Significantly, their two male authority figures, the television personality and the Prophet, are played by the same singer, Kevin Burdette, assuming the role of the man who questions whether the wives were coached to answer as one, as well as that of the man who coached them. The wives claim that polygamy is just another lifestyle, and Presendia offers, “Some states allow men to marry other men,” which prompts the news show host to retort with, “Do you support gay marriage, then?” a question they, of course, cannot answer. The women’s united front disintegrates, as Eliza, who can no longer live a lie, departs and Ruth, who cannot filter what she says, retreats further into dementia. When Eliza returns to the ranch for a funeral, and urges Lucinda—Kristina Bachrach—to come away with her, her daughter joins the wives and husband in shunning her.