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American Gothic

by Georges Briscot,

Nico Muhly’s new opera about women in a Mormon polygamist sect, Dark Sisters, opens with a poetic a cappella tableau: five women in nightgowns stand on the red sands of the desert, calling out to their children who have been taken from them by the government. A stormy sky swirls overhead (ironically – and perhaps intentionally – reminiscent of the infamous Mormon ad campaign against gay marriage, “The Gathering Storm”).

In their long white cotton nighties, their resemblance to crying babies collected in a nursery ward perfectly describes the confound of their looping existence, in which women who are still children exist only to bear more children. The unsatisfied yearnings of their under-developed psyches call out and intermingle in a kind of Renaissance polyphony, and we feel how they are, both in their prescribed roles and their suffering, reduced to their animal natures: coyotes yowling in the desert.

Without overstating this or becoming tiresome, Muhly was able throughout the opera to express, musically, the closed-off and repetitive nature of the wives’ existence. Vocal lines often circled around a central pitch, bits of text that served as instructive mantras to the women (“Keep sweet, keep sweet . . .”) would be passed around and intoned over and over. Though never literally “minimalist”, one did detect hints of the possible influence of Steve Reich, as well as Bjo?rk and Arvo Pa?rt, in Muhly’s structuring and tonality. One longed on occasion for more variety of tempo from either Mr. Muhly or Mr. Goren (who otherwise offered deft and secure leadership in the pit), although the steadiness had its own kind of propulsion to it, the momentum of breathing.

Obviously this opera has many parallels with that other set of dark sisters in Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites, and as that is one of the operatic masterpieces of all time, too close a comparison would be unfair (and beside the point). That opera is also repetitive and occasionally plodding in its evocation of a community bound by ritual in perpetua. However, it did strike me that one way in which Poulenc succeeds where Dark Sisters disappointed was in revealing the richness of the inner lives of the women. Are the sister-wives’ struggles really no greater than trying to remain obedient, “sweet”, and in competing for their husband’s attention? Maybe not.

Although that aspect of the libretto felt predictable and less interesting to me, perhaps there is an essential difference between Carmelite nuns and the women of the FLDS sect: whereas the Old Prioress says “the convent cannot be a refuge”, the FLDS members, like many doomed utopian sects before them, hope to create their own sheltered Paradise on Earth, and in doing so have tried to expunge violence, passion, and questioning from the sacred, in favor of bland, candy-colored visions of the Next Life. Perhaps Muhly’s generally soft-edged music was consciously expressive of this specifically Mormon aesthetic.
A more three-dimensional persona was granted to one wife, the protagonist Eliza (sung with intelligent nuance and feeling by Caitlin Lynch), and while her touching aria under the stars and her straining to hear the voice of God was effectively communicated, I did long for the challenge of the theological debate that Blanche’s similar (if reverse) journey in Carmelites offers us. In other words, the libretto on occasion felt a little dumbed-down.

I appreciated that the piece (unlike many new operas) was not over-orchestrated, and allowed the singers to always remain front and center. (Brava to diction coach Kathryn LaBouff for the beautifully lucid American diction displayed throughout). Mr. Muhly found economical means of highlighting character and drama in the colors of the orchestra: the rasp and rattle of Ruth’s grating mental illness; the childlike purity of the hymns, accompanied by the harp and woodwinds; the sparkling grandeur of the starry desert sky. He also knew to save the extremes of the voice for the moments of highest drama, and with many fine sopranos in the cast, every high note was one to relish.

Jennifer Zetlan was a stand-out among the sister wives, finding the odd sweet spot of dazed placidity meeting jealous judgment that one perceives in the indoctrinated; her singing was precise, facile and energized, and she had the best diction of the cast.
Kevin Burdette, always a fine actor, focused his energy into a powerfully restrained performance as the Prophet-Husband. His simple slow grin at Lucinda’s berating the heretic Eliza at the end of the opera spoke volumes.

Eve Gigliotti (like all the performers, well-directed by Rebecca Taichman) had the difficult task of embodying the mentally ill Ruth, and this she accomplished without caricature or cliche?. Although her suicide aria never quite delivered musically as effectively as the set did (with gorgeous rain showers falling over the desert), she held our attention with her edgy intensity.

The set design, by Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer (of 59 Productions/ “War Horse” fame), managed to be both ascetically stark as well as deeply sensual. The red earth, the stormy sky, the hand-hewn bench: we did not require anything more to inhabit and breathe the air of this world. Especially chilling was the bed that rose like an altar in the center of the stage at the end of the first act, reminding us of what all of this is ultimately about: the sexual subjugation of women. The row of portraits of elders seemed to leer at the bed from the back wall, and Eliza’s wedding-night trauma was staged in a way that involved just enough sexual violation, making it effective without being tasteless.

I recall watching Oprah’s interview with some of the women of the FLDS Mt. Zion Ranch (“Okay, explain to us what we’re all wondering about: the hair!”) and while I had expected to condemn or pity the women, I found myself surprised by their wisdom and genuine spirituality. I came away wondering if maybe they had a point, that perhaps they did at least have a belonging, a community, and a surety about life that our modern age has lost in blind pursuit of individual freedom at all costs. And I guess this is what was missing from the otherwise excellent Dark Sisters for me: our allegiance with the heroine who escapes is assumed, and we feel little sympathy or understanding for the smiling sisters who remain at the end, holding hands, singing a Copland-esque hymn. We know they love their children and are committed to keeping sweet; but might they also have some higher truths hidden beneath their swelling hair?

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