Saturday, November 12, 2011

Dark Sisters: Blaze a trail beyond the canyons

Seeing Nico Muhly's Dark Sisters at Gotham Chamber Opera was an unexpected opportunity, and, as it turned out, a deeply unsettling experience. The plot could be described as a fantasy on themes from the headlines, exploring and imagining narratives behind the 2008 raid which took 400 children from a Texan FLDS community into custody, following allegations of physical and sexual abuse. Transforming these events and the commentary on them into an opera has yielded intriguing results. Muhly appears deeply aware of the (problematic) histories of opera's focus on the suffering and singing of women. Dark Sisters is a work which is intensely focused on both, but also on the power of histories and myths--individual and collective--and on the tense issue of how narrative is controlled, often by men for women. With the first explosive, destabilizing contact with the outside world before the curtain's rise, the music is left to deal with the tensions resulting from, and revealed by, the dramatic event. The music given to the small ensemble (led sensitively by Neal Goren) is strongly atmospheric, and more than a little unsettling. Strings murmur ominously; a solo cello wails. There are strong contributions from grouped and solo woodwinds as well (nice oboe work) with brass only occasional, but dramatically effective. The ensemble also features a harp, a piano, chimes, and a wind machine. One curious characteristic of the opera is that, although the music certainly changes in texture to indicate shifts in mood and atmosphere throughout, there is not a strong evolution in the style of the music to follow the crisis-punctuated disintegration of the community. The precise, poetic libretto of Stephen Karam works symbiotically with the music; it might seem exaggerated or heavy-handed as a play; the music gives it nuance and ambiguity. The nature of the drama works against both dramatic eruptions and strongly individualized voice writing, although the latter does, as it were, break through.

The set was simple, and usually empty, with a raked stage colored like the red Texan earth, and projections depicting the changes in a large and troubled sky. In fine operatic tradition, portents in nature echo the cataclysmic events of the plot; the distressed opening ensemble takes place during a lunar eclipse.  Movements throughout are strongly stylized; changes from this deliberate and limited vocabulary of physical expression signal trouble (Rebecca Taichman directed, and made the choreography clear and expressive.) The first act takes place entirely within the household, and within the women's imaginations. In the second act, the opera audience is suddenly a television audience confronted with an all-too-familiar invasive news program. The role of the prodding reporter is doubled with that of the prophet (reinforcing the theme of the male control of narrative, and the breakdown of that control.) The wives grouped together in the interview room were seated on stage; projections were used to show us the probing, interpretation-imposing closeups of the TV reportage as they sang. It is in this scene that the final fracturing of the community begins; when the curtain falls several scenes later, the long-term effects of this fracturing are still unclear.

In the opening ensemble, as the women keen for their absent children, the children's clothing is offered at the footlights as if in sacrifice to an invisible God... but it is their husband--the "prophet," as he styles himself, the "father," as they call him--who receives the offerings. Kevin Burdette sang this unsympathetic role with appropriately sinister charisma, if slightly dry sound. The way he altered his vocal and physical mannerisms for the role of the TV presenter was impressive. Living and interpreting their lives in "perfect obedience" becomes increasingly difficult as the women examine an existence which has been thrust into crisis. Cooperation and competition are never far apart as they support and admonish each other. Their repetition of the teaching "Keep sweet, keep sweet" becomes increasingly eerie. Zina, the youngest of the wives, is proudly firm in conviction, but not without complexity; she is, of course, a coloratura soprano. Jennifer Zetlan sang the role with fine and incisive expression. Her bright indictment of the hypocrisy of American pluralism in the TV interview was delightful, and a duet for her and mezzo Margaret Lattimore was one of the highlights of the first act. Lattimore has a big, confident sound, but the firm facade of her character, Presendia, frays in unexpected and unexpectedly moving ways. The role of sweet-tempered but disturbed Almera was sung, with warm, full sound, by soprano Jennifer Check. While much of the opera consists of ensemble writing for the women, individual exchanges help reveal their characters, as when Almera confides her dreams to Eliza, anxieties about the heritage she has received from previous generations of women whose sufferings she is beginning to understand.

Eve Gigliotti gave a moving performance as the psychologically fragile Ruth. Gigliotti has a rich, flexible mezzo, and she gave Ruth's often childlike utterances an unsettling intensity. The attempts at comfort offered by her sister wives are often rejected as forms of control. Confessing to Eliza the history of her children, and her grief, is an act of acknowledging her own emotions from which there is no turning back. (This is a mother narrating the deaths of her children, her sense of loss, and her sense of guilt. I cried.) Ruth breaks the united facade of the wives, and breaks away from them following the TV interview. In a sense, the whole role is like a mad scene; her suicide aria, then, is its inevitable finale. "Look what I did," she sings, "Look what I did." She is free, by her own act of will... and so damaged that her only "way home" is towards her visions of angels. The descending vocal lines are echoed by the cellos, not quite into silence, but into the hymn "Abide with me." I cried again, harder. 

From the opening ensemble onwards, Eliza (Caitlyn Lynch) is set apart from her sister wives, as her back is turned to the audience. And Lynch's vocal lines, too, frequently strive against the conformity which is offered as consolation. Radiant may seem a glib adjective, but it kept coming to mind in reference to Lynch's lyric soprano. Eliza is tortured both by anxieties for the future of her nubile daughter, and by memories of her own early marriage, and the rape following it. The Act I aria in which she recounts her own story is heartbreaking. The vocal writing of the role becomes increasingly adventurous as Eliza begins working out her plan for freedom, and Lynch positively glowed, but the ending is neither pat nor easy. The daughter Eliza has fought for chooses to remain within the community, and complete the marriage that has been arranged for her. Eliza is left alone; her fiery condemnation of enforced silence is countered by the unison hymn to obedience. "Look what I did," Eliza sings, as she faces the unknown; darkness falls as she ventures into a new life. The future of the opera, at this point, is of course similarly uncertain. I can only say that I was impressed by its dramatic and emotional impact, and drawn in by its sharp engagement both with social issues and operatic traditions. The addition of a work performable by small companies, with musically juicy and dramatically intelligent roles for women, to the repertory, would of course please me no end.

Another take on last night's performance should shortly be available from Taminophile, thanks to whom I got to see it. For more information about the creation of the opera, or to purchase tickets, go here.


  1. WHAT! I want to see this! And they only perform for six nights in NYC. *inconsolable sobs*

  2. So sorry to have caused despair, cara DTO! You could always visit Philadelphia in June... and/or start persuading Toronto-based companies that they simply must put it on the roster.

  3. Good tip. Come February, I'll be researching the B&Bs in the city of brotherly (sisterly, now) love.


Start a conversation!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...