“Dark Sisters” arrived at Gotham Chamber Opera with a pedigree that’s hard to beat: Composer Nico Muhly has already been commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera — at age 30 — for the opera “Two Boys,” which premiered over the summer at the English National Opera.
And the librettist Stephen Karam has most recently won acclaim for his play, “Sons of the Prophet,” currently running at the Roundabout Theatre.
Collaborating to tell the story of sister wives in a Southwestern Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints community, the pair delivered an attention-grabbing work at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater on Wednesday night. The ensemble cast sold every moment, with performances that were technically polished, vocally interesting and dramatically believable.
When the opera opens, the polygamous wives at the center of the drama have just had their children taken away by the authorities.
Eliza, the only one who outwardly questions her unconditional obedience to her husband and his true abilities as a prophet, begins to plot her escape when she learns her 15-year-old daughter, Lucinda (Kristina Bachrach), is to marry a man in his fifties.
Caitlin Lynch gave an intense performance, with the lucid, natural quality of her soprano well-suited to her character. As the mentally fragile Ruth, mezzo-soprano Eve Gigliotti did justice to a solo scene hauntingly written by Muhly and Karam, one of the most affecting of the opera.
It was smart to break up the women’s despair with a comic scene where two of the wives squabbled while waiting to see who would be their husband’s choice for the night, with mezzo-soprano Margaret Lattimore’s sumptuously voiced Presendia vying with Jennifer Zetlan’s bright, perky Zina.
As Almera, who tries to keep Eliza on track, soprano Jennifer Check’s character was not as vividly drawn as the others, but she sang splendidly, with startling strength and much tenderness. Bass Kevin Burdette gruffly commanded authority as the Prophet.
Credit is also due to director Rebecca Taichman for staging that felt fluid and unaffected yet also included some picturesque images.
Muhly granted the singers lavish, lyrical vocal lines that maximized the sweet spots of the voices as well as intriguingly textured choral writing. For GCO’s 13-member orchestra, effectively led by Neal Goren, the composer used a brushstroke-like approach to convey mood and character — a single trembling note in focus, a jab of strings at a painful moment, the chime of twinkling stars.
Particularly compelling was the sisters’ eerily placid refrain of “keep sweet” against Eliza’s clashing torment.
Still, although an interesting contrast to the singers, and distinctive, the orchestration sometimes seemed overly understated. It was atmospherically interesting, but even taking into account the ensemble size, there was room for more depth and more driving force to underscore the characters’ high-stakes situations.
Set designer Leo Warner conveyed the earth tones of the locale with painterly projections. For a scene in which the sisters went on TV, these shifted to an immersive stage that simultaneously gave the impression of what it was like for the sisters in their hot seats, and the images the viewer at home would see.
Here, facial expressions (especially Zetlan’s) were priceless — just one more of the many strengths that made this cast of accomplished but not-quite-celebrity singers the real revelation of the production.