"Dark Sisters," an intriguing new opera by a talented young American composer, pulls us in from its opening bars to an unfamiliar world and makes us care about its inhabitants.
It's the world of a polygamist compound in the American Southwest, and the first sounds we hear are the overlapping voices of five wives of a "prophet of God" whose children have just been taken from them in a raid by the state. Wearing pioneer-style white dresses, they stand on a bare stage covered with red desert earth, calling out their children's names in anguished harmony.
The lyrical sadness of their lament sets the tone for a wrenching story of faith, loneliness and despair – redeemed at the end by a ray of hope.
The opera, with music by Nico Muhly and libretto by playwright Stephen Karam, had its world premiere Wednesday night at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College. The outstanding ensemble cast of six women and one man was accompanied by the 13-member Gotham Chamber Opera Orchestra, conducted with flair by Neal Goren.
On first hearing, Muhly and Karam seem to have succeeded where many new operas fail: Though the text is well-crafted and thought-provoking, it's the music that serves as the driving force for the drama.
Using an orchestra consisting mostly of strings and woodwinds, Muhly creates a texture that is often bright and shimmering on the surface but bubbling with turmoil and dissonance underneath. One unusual effect is provided by an instrument called a geophone, a drum filled with small pellets that when shaken sounds a bit like dry, shifting earth.
The women are sharply differentiated through their vocal lines: the growing doubts of Eliza, the ecstatic visions of Almera, the grief of Ruth and the bickering and petty jealousy of Presendia and Zina.
Act 1 shows us the domestic lives of the women in the compound. We see the isolation and drudgery of their lives and their total submission to the sexual will of their stern, self-righteous husband, chillingly portrayed by bass Kevin Burdette.
Act 2 opens with them being interviewed by a somewhat stereotypical TV talk-show host (named King, and also played by Burdette). The wives are seated to one side while their faces appear first on a monitor and then on a giant screen that fills the back of the stage.
It's most of all Eliza, portrayed by the compelling soprano Caitlin Lynch, who commands our attention and sympathy. From the start, she provides a discordant note as the others sing their mantra of "Keep it sweet, keep it sweet." Her disillusionment grows, until at the end she leaves the sect and strikes out into the world, even though it means separating from her teenage daughter, Lucinda.
A counterpoint to her journey is the sad story of Ruth, movingly sung by mezzo-soprano Eve Gigliotti. Ruth cannot get past the tragic deaths of her two children or the heartlessness of the prophet who blames her and, as another wife puts it, has "put her out to pasture." She eventually kills herself after a brief mad scene.
By the end, we learn that the children have been returned to the compound. A final scene shows Eliza sadly parting from Lucinda (soprano Kristina Bachrach), who has decided to remain with her father, even though he plans to marry her off to a man old enough to be her grandfather.
The others in the uniformly strong cast are soprano Jennifer Check as Almera, mezzo Margaret Lattimore as Presendia and soprano Jennifer Zetlan as Zina.
Director Rebecca Taichman has done a terrific job of conjuring up a world that is simultaneously vast and claustrophobic. She is aided by the set and video designs by Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer of 59 Productions; the costumes by Miranda Hoffman; and the lighting by Donald Holder.