16 November 2011

Muhly’s ‘Dark Sisters,’ at Last

Sisterwives: Jennifer Zetlan (Zina), Margaret Lattimore (Presendia), Caitlin Lynch (Eliza), Jennifer Check (Almera), Eve Gigliotti (Ruth).
This and all photos by Richard Termine.

Nico Muhly’s Dark Sisters was given its world premiere last Friday night by Gotham Chamber Opera, one of three organizations that commissioned the new opera. (The others are Opera Company of Philadelphia and the Music-Theatre Group.) Having heard a preview in September already, I attended the performance Tuesday night.

Very often, when one talks with composers or reads an interview, one finds oneself wondering why these artists have landed upon this particular form as a vehicle for their expression: you don’t always sense an affinity for opera itself. That’s not the case with Nico Muhly, I’m pleased to say, and I cite as an example something he said in his quasi-cabaret act with Gotham musicians last month. At one point in Dark Sisters, he said, he set out to write the world’s slowest mad scene.

What I understood — and what the score of Dark Sisters confirms — is that Nico Muhly wanted to write a mad scene. Something that is instantly associated and inextricably embedded in one specific art form. Namely, opera. Yes, the guy is in the right business.

Gigliotti, in Ruth’s mad scene

And the proof lies in that very mad scene. Muhly and his librettist, Stephen Karam, have created a lovely piece of music, inventively staged by Rebecca Taichman. The scene is also a star turn for Eve Gigliotti, whose portrayal of hapless Ruth glides seamlessly from comic relief in Act I to aching despair in Act II, culminating here in a moment of the most fragile beauty.

In other sections of the score, composer and librettist do betray their inexperience: Act I sorely lacks momentum until a few minutes before the curtain, when a plot point is shoved in hurriedly. It’s as if the guys suddenly looked up, saw what time it was, and realized they’d better get busy. It’s all well and good to devote a chunk of your opera to leisurely exposition and character development, but these things aren’t dramatic — and to be honest, Act I is too often not merely static but quite dull.

I’m not sure how this is possible, given that Dark Sisters (despite the misleading title, which makes you think it’s about witches*) is a ripped-from-the-headlines drama set among a fundamentalist, polygamous Mormon family whose children have been seized (just before the opera begins) in a police raid. Conflicts that have simmered below the surface (rivalries among the five wives for the affections of their shared husband, the Prophet; rebellion against his authority; the struggles of mothers to recover and to protect their children) now bubble up. Or anyway, you expect them to, but Act I only begins to fulfill that promise.

Things perk up substantially in Act II, beginning with a culture clash, as the wives appear on a TV talk show (a more sensational sort of Nightline), moving swiftly to our heroine’s flight, the aforementioned mad scene, and a poignant farewell. Here was the best evidence of Muhly and Karam’s strengths, with suspense, comedy and pathos operating brilliantly in the service of real drama.

Even so, Muhly has written only a few (at most) of the kinds of big, gutsy outbursts that I need in an opera, and it’s telling that Dark Sisters ends not with a flourish, a fanfare, and a transfiguration but with a wistful tinkling and a blackout. I daresay he can cite for me 743 important philosophical reasons he chose not to write bigger moments — but the bottom line is that I heard the score twice and I wasn’t satisfied emotionally.

Brash, brilliant, and scarily articulate, Muhly seems like the last person you could ever accuse of timidity. But listening to some passages of Dark Sisters, I fantasized that Marilyn Horne might step out of the wings, take Muhly by the shoulders, and say to him, as she says to singers, that he needs to be bigger, to step up to the spotlight: “This is the glory of your voice! Now you’ve got to let ’er out. Not everybody has that.”

That said, this remains a gorgeous score, full of interest, lyricism, and character, and it’s substantially more promising than many another composer’s second opera. Compare Muhly’s Dark Sisters with Puccini’s Edgar, and you can be excused for predicting that Muhly will turn out to be the most important — and popular — composer of opera in the 21st century.

And now the latest news.
Kevin Burdette as King, the anchorman.

In the pit, Neal Goren celebrated his company’s tenth anniversary by leading a shimmering, open-hearted account of Muhly’s score, evoking by turns wide-open horizons, starlight on rippling waters, and daggers straight to the heart. Among the pleasures of the performance was the opportunity to salute Gotham Chamber Opera’s progress to a theater with good acoustics: the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College is a far cry from Gotham’s birthplace, the Harry De Jur Playhouse auditorium at the Henry Street Settlement.

What surely and mercifully hasn’t changed about Goren’s work with the company is excellence in casting. As Eliza, the rebellious wife, soprano Caitlin Lynch made it impossible to take your eyes off her, turning in an affecting, thoroughly credible characterization while singing in a limpid soprano voice with all the naturalness and immediacy of speech. She seems to be — she must be — poised for an important career.

As Ruth’s sister, mezzo Margaret Lattimore impressed me even more on second hearing, and I admired especially her subtle means of conveying Presendia’s efforts to assert her authority over the other women — and herself. Her principal rival is the young, hugely pregnant Zina, given a glittering portrayal by Jennifer Zetlan, pretty and bright but also as hard as gemstones.

The always-appealing Jennifer Check registered strongly in an emotional Act I aria, remembering Almera’s mother and grandmother, but I was impressed just as much by the delicacy of her acting, the flicker of distant desires across her face as she merely listened to the others. Kristina Bachrach sang Lucinda, Eliza’s 16-year-old daughter, with a beautifully placed instrument and a physical presence that conveyed the haste with which Lucinda is pressed into grownup life.

Kevin Burdette, a Gotham stalwart most recently heard as the Ogre in El Gato con Botas, gave the score a resonant foundation — its only male voice, and a basso at that — as the rigid, implacable Prophet. Burdette excels in sly character comedy based on careful observation, and he exulted in a second role, that of the TV host, called King, a cross between Ted Koppel and Maury Povich.

Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer’s video design hoisted the interview scene, using not only clips of real-life polygamous families under the news camera’s glare but also focusing on and enlarging the performers onstage: it’s thanks to them that I could appreciate Gilgiotti’s expressions of ecstatic anguish as she listened silently to Eliza’s outburst during that interview. Warner also designed the set, a barren plain of red earth (actually, carpeting) against a stark blue sky; a center section rose to evoke a cliff or a marital bed, then sank to suggest a grave.

Stage director Taichman shone most brightly in the utter clarity of the character relationships and her sureness in dramatizing a series of situations that are alien to most of her audience. Even the most extreme moments seemed recognizable and true; I’d love to see what she does with a standard-rep work.

Quite apart from the details of the performance, Dark Sisters offered, as I say, a terrific way to celebrate Gotham’s anniversary. Plenty of New Yorkers have tried to start opera companies, without surviving ten years; Gotham Chamber Opera is still going strong, partnering with other organizations and exciting artists in every field, exposing me to new ideas and unheard songs, giving me pleasure — and plenty to buzz about.

Did I mention that Stephen Sondheim was in the audience Tuesday night?

A star is born: Caitlin Lynch

Dark Sisters
Gotham Chamber Opera
Remaining Performance: Saturday, 19 November, 8:00 PM
For ticket information, click here.

For information on upcoming performances (June 2012) with Opera Company of Philadelphia, click here.

*NOTE: Compounding the title’s problems was the premiere, just two weeks after Halloween.

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