Five women singing together: That’s an opera fan’s idea of heaven. And though Nico Muhly’s “Dark Sisters” doesn’t quite reach celestial heights, Wednesday’s premiere offered the promise of an exciting new composer’s voice.
The “sisters” are the five wives of a self-styled Mormon prophet, members of an offshoot sect. State officials have recently raided their compound and removed their children, suspecting that the minors have been abused. The wives are given a series of hymn like ensembles, including an eerily beautiful quintet set to the Prophet’s parting words, “Keep sweet.”
Also striking is the orchestral music suggesting the severe desert landscape, wailing violin chords like the scrape of a folk musician’s fiddle, and high, bare woodwinds evoking the vast night sky. The score’s witty highlight depicts the wives’ appearance on a CNN-like news show, their coached responses slowly breaking down into chaotic chatter.
Less impressive was Muhly’s music for the solo arias, where the 30-year-old composer’s mild dissonances might have been written a generation ago by Dominick Argento or John Corigliano. And the libretto by Stephen Karam, who wrote off-Broadway’s critically acclaimed “Sons of the Prophet,” is fragmented. With 11 scenes spread over barely 90 minutes of music, even such potentially gripping moments as the madness and death of one of the women seem to come out of nowhere, more like a trailer for “Dark Sisters” then the opera itself.
Gotham Chamber Opera and the Music-Theatre Group give this work as superb a production as any new opera might hope for, with lean, taut direction from Rebecca Taichman and the sturdy guidance of conductor Neal Goren. Among a uniformly excellent cast, Caitlyn Lynch unfurled a shimmering soprano as rebellious wife Eliza, while soprano Jennifer Check and mezzo Margaret Lattimore lent firm dignity to supporting roles.
Though “Dark Sisters” is hardly the great American opera, it’s a serious attempt at an unconventional topic. Muhly, a Philip Glass protégé, could well be a star of tomorrow.