Dark Sisters

Nov 10, 2011

The Financial Times

Martin Bernheimer

Nico Muhly’s intimate opera is a sentimental meditation on a crisis of faith

Nico Muhly must be the flavour of the month – maybe the year – among quasi-modern composers. At 30 he seems to be preposterously prolific, a factotum as busy as Figaro and something of a stylistic chameleon.

His big opera, Two Boys, had its premiere at the English National Opera in June. The Met impresario Peter Gelb now says he considered that just an out-of-town tryout for his upcoming, presumably improved, New York version. At the Lynch Theater of John Jay College, the brave Gotham Chamber Opera introduced Muhly’s more intimate effort, Dark Sisters.

The protagonists, as delineated by the sensitive librettist Stephen Karam, are six members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a polygamous Mormon sect in the isolated south-west. The narrative dwells on a government raid in which children were separated, temporarily, from their distraught mothers, some of whom happened to be children themselves. Conflict arises when one strong-willed woman dares to defy blind religious obedience.

Essentially, Dark Sisters is a sentimental meditation on a crisis of faith. Muhly does write neat old-fashioned set pieces. He does create grateful cantilenas for his assembled sopranos. He does provide smart orchestrations, some unabashedly spicy and some artificially sweetened. He does toy knowingly with impressionistic shimmer here, minimalist muttering there. Despite echoes of the feminine religious orders depicted by Puccini and Poulenc, however, he fails to avoid timbral monotony, and his droopy sing-song hardly supports expressive impact. Ultimately, for all its lofty intentions, the opera seems too gentle and perhaps too pat. Call it eine kleine pretty-music.

Unfazed, Neal Goren enforced lyrical sensitivity and dramatic thrust in the pit. Rebecca Taichman created spare semi-abstract stage pictures, abetted by Leo Warner’s designs and video devices created by 59 Productions. The contrasting “sisters” – Caitlin Lynch, Eve Gigliotti, Jennifer Check, Margaret Lattimore, Jennifer Zetlan and Kristina Bachrach – gave object lessons in muted virtuosity. Kevin Burdette provided deft basso counterpoint, doubling as sombre prophet-in-residence and slick television interviewer. Muhly’s vehicle may be problematic, but the performance was splendid.