Dark Sisters

Nov 11, 2011

Oberon's Grove

Phillip Gardner

The opera is based on the story of the seizure of the children of the many wives of a polygamist 'prophet' of the Church of Latter Day Saints, the appearance of the wives on national television, the return of the children to their mothers, and the choices made by the individual women in the wake of the experience.

Nico Muhly's score is striking in its clarity and texture; his music doesn't sound like anyone else's (always a plus) and he steers clear of Broadway and Americana, avoiding easy accessability by instead favoring the creation of a sound-world particular to his subject matter. In this regard the opera reminds me of PELLEAS ET MELISANDE. Conductor Neal Goren and his thirteen musicians delivered the music, which often shimmers in the upper instrumental voices, with a fine sense of transparency.

The treble-oriented vocal writing keeps the female voices largely in the upper-middle of their respective ranges. This creates the buzzy sensation of community while the under-lying tensions (which eventually boil down to: who gets to sleep with The Prophet on any given night) come to a head during a scene while the man of the house is away. On his return, the wives tend to fall back to complacency.

The opera doesn't attempt to deal with the larger themes which provide the basis of the story: there's no judgement passed on whether polygamy is right or wrong; whether the women are beloved wives or simply brain-washed concubines; whether the way they raise their children is good or bad. It is an intimate, domestic story which never reaches the operatic heights of outright conflict and theatrical climax. 

As the opera nears its end, one of the women (the mentally unstable Ruth) commits suicide while another (Eliza) finds the courage to leave the relative security of the extended-family situation despite the fact that her teen-aged daughter chooses to stay behind. The Prophet and his remaining women depart quietly for their ranch-haven as Eliza ponders her choice.  

Kevin Burdette is The Prophet, a zealous and upright Mormon fellow who feels that practicing his beliefs here in a country that Constitutionally embraces freedom of religion extends to his practice of polygamy: this is a man who gets his orders directly from god. I was at Kevin Burdette's senior recital at Juilliard a decade ago and remember him as a handsome-voiced basso of serious musical intent. That description still holds true today. His dual role as Prophet and 'Larry King' was finely sung and vividly enunciated.

Caitlin Lynch used her strong lyric soprano to fine effect as the conflicted Eliza while Jennifer Zetlan's soubrette sound worked perfectly - even to the extent of being annoying - as the ultra-faithful Zina. Mezzo-soprano Margaret Lattimore was superb as she offered some of the evening's most dramatically urgent singing as Presendia. Kristina Bachrach did very well in the brief role of Lucinda, Eliza's teen-aged daughter about to be married off to a man in his sixties.

A disastrous late-seating five minutes into the opera was particularly unfortunate since it broke the spell that the composer was weaving. And in the end it did seem to me that, despite its musical appeal, the opera would of been more effective if delivered in a single one-hour span; the often-repetitive libretto could have been tightened and the intermission replaced by interludes as the action moved from ranch to television studio and back again.

"DARK SISTERS" is thought-provoking on so many levels, especially as we contemplate the effects of religion on contemporary life. So much of the unrest and mortal conflict which now permeate our world is religion-based. Getting free of these belief patterns is our only hope, but they are so ingrained in each culture. It's easy to scoff at such notions as Kolob and magical garments, but each religion/cult has its own fantasies and superstitions - virgin births, communion/confession, circumcision, burkas, forbidden foods or activities - that basically serve no purpose but to control thought and behavior. We have to shed these empty and divisive practices and thought-patterns if we are to move forward. And forward is the direction that time and the universe are ever-flowing.