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A Missed Opportunity

by Steve Cohen, , The Opera Review.

Is there a similarity between polygamy and same-sex marriage? Is there a common cause among the advocates of both of those controversial life styles?

This opera raises that possibility, then drops the subject. It is a missed opportunity.

Dark Sisters is a co-commission (and co-production) from the Opera Company of Philadelphia, Gotham Chamber Opera and Music Theatre Group. It’s based on the 1953 raid on polygamous compounds of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Arizona. When defending their definition of marriage, one of the wives of the cult’s prophet/father says that some states allow marriages of gay couples. If same-sex marriages are legal, she implies, shouldn’t polygamous or underage marriages be similarly protected? Gay marriages, of course, were unheard of in the 1950s. Nevertheless, that subject could be examined, and it would add contemporary relevance to the opera.

That’s one of several avenues upon which this opera embarks, then fails to adequately explore. At the start we learn that the government raided the camp and removed all the children. Any parent would think about nothing else but the fate of his or her children. Yet for the next hour we hear the women discuss sewing and cooking, their jealousies and rivalries, and who will their husband sleep with next.

Despite this cognitive dissonance, the first act gave us some empathy with these women. Then act 2 shows us a telecast where the host describes their “big hair” and grills them about their underage marriages. The women’s robotic responses confirms the host’s worst accusations. Now they talk about their children, but their talk was obviously pre-coached propaganda to win the support of TV viewers. Whatever sympathy we had for the wives dissipated here.

At the end, we were told that a court ordered the children to be returned, but we didn’t see that emotional reunion. The opera’s conclusion was perfunctory.

Dark Sisters raised a curtain partially and briefly on a community, and when that curtain has dropped we don’t know much more about the people than we did going in.

Musically, Muhly knows how to write effectively for women’s voices. He has composed upward phrases that allow sopranos to bloom gratefully on the top notes. He is skillful in his instrumental writing for a chamber orchestra that has only two violins and one each of viola, cello, bass, flute, clarinet, oboe, French horn, harp, keyboard and percussion. Sometimes he produces a full rich sound that you would not expect from such a small group. Elsewhere, the instruments support and embellish the vocal lines with some nice shimmering effects.

The sound is astringent and there are not enough developed melodies that build to emotional climaxes. Like the story, the music is tantalizing but not quite fulfilling.

The women’s singing is spectacular. Strongest is Jennifer Check as Almera. She has a big voice with beautiful high notes. All of the others were accomplished too: Caitlin Lynch, Eve Giglotti, Margaret Lattimore, Kristina Bachrach and Jennifer Zetlan. The one man in the cast was the rather stolid (intentionally so, I assume) bass Kevin Burdette as the prophet/father/ husband and also as the TV host.

Neal Goren conducted with authority. Rebecca Taichman’s direction included evocations of the American Southwest but could also have used some symbolic reminder of the women’s psychological and physical confinement.

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