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Opera Phila’s Dark Sisters powerfully illiminates female suffering

by Gale Martin, ,

The plight of women trapped in plural marriage—one husband with multiple wives—glowed like a firebrand on the Perelman Theater stage on Sunday. Opera Company of Philadelphia’s Dark Sisters, in co-production with Gotham Chamber Opera and the Music- Theatre Group, is OCP’s final offering of the 2011-12 season. With every artistic touch, everyspecial effect, the chamber opera seared itself into the audience’s soul: from the captivating projection of a Southwestern sky crowded with stars to each floor-length dress hem as muddy as the clay that the Dark Sisters have been ground into by a backwards religious cult that subjugates women.

Culturally significant with a socio-political timeliness, Dark Sisters is the best single show I’ve seen from OCP and one of the finest operas I’ve seen in two seasons anywhere on the East Coast. It is everything art should be: beautiful, thought-provoking, engrossing, chilling, disturbing, breathtaking.
The storyline of Dark Sisters could have been ripped from the headlines of a modern American newspaper or a TV news show reporting on the polygamist compounds on society’s fringes and under siege from the United States government.

The opera opens just after federal agents have removed all the children from the cult’s ranch, having learned that the Prophet—the cult’s leader—forces young teenage girls into marriage. Without their children to care for, the Prophet’s five wives are bereft and filled with emptiness. No strangers to suffering, the Prophet’s wives share strained sisterly relationships. They have learned to steel themselves against their suffering by “Keeping Sweet,” a kind of self talk, an indoctrination of sorts to keep their minds from filling with negative, destructive and independent thoughts.

The wives, the Dark Sisters, are well differentiated. There’s the dutiful ones, the favored one, the full-on crazy wife, and one who discovers she cannot be content preparing for the joy and fulfillment promised in the next life by suffering in this one. Eliza realizes she wants some measure of happiness during her earthly life. When she learns from another of the Prophet’s wives that he has pledged her 15-year-old daughter to wed a near 60-year-old man, she knows she must get herself and her daughter out.

You won’t leave the Perelman Theater humming the score, but you may be moved to complete silence and hours of contemplation, as I was upon realizing that some women are treated like goods and chattel in 21st-century America.

Everything and everyone bears mention for the success of this show. The set by Leo Warner, the spectacular video design by Warner and Mark Grimmer, and the lighting by Donald Holder combined for the ideal vehicle showcasing director Rebecca Taichman’s vision for the show as a symbolic and surreal statement about the oppression of women in modern-day religious sects. Together they make a powerful statement revealing a male-dominated microcosm who claim moral superiority, all the while grinding their filthy work boots into the necks of cowed, indoctrinated women.

No lumbering, creaking set pieces in this production, no sir. The special effects seamlessly supported the storytelling and included a sophisticated simulation of an on-air cable TV interview with big screens flying on and offstage and a cliff rising out of the forbidding landscape for a treacherous purpose. The second-act scene with the mad Ruth having a psychotic break while teetering at the cliff’s edge was one of the most heart-pounding scenes I’ve ever witnessed on an opera stage.

Nico Muhly’s score is many things you might expect to hear in a new American opera. It’s discordant, at times, but also palatable and powerful. When strains of Sunday School hymns intermingle with contemporary notes and rhythms, the sacred tunes become haunting rather than consoling. The libretto by Stephen Karam riveted the audience to the supertitle screen. I was torn between watching the stage and not wanting to miss a word because the dialogue is so exquisitely crafted.

Dark Sisters is an ensemble show and every cast member deserves mention for their stellar contribution to its artistic success: Caitlyn Lynch, Eve Gigliotti, Jennifer Check, Margaret Lattimore, Jennifer Zetlan, Kristina Bachrach, and Kevin Burdette, who was so effective playing the loathsome, libidinous Prophet and all the other male roles that he was booed at curtain call. Bravo to all the players for their bravery, talent, and willingness to take risks.

Conductor Neal Goren managed the talented musicians of the Opera Company of Philadelphia Orchestra with aplomb, supporting the singers through interwoven vocal lines as the wives alternately sang over one another or chanted their self-talk, almost arhythmically. The score became chaotic-sounding as the action lurched, sputtered, and soared. It must be a tremendous challenge for Goren, leading musicians to succeed in a work such as this. But succeed he did.

Dark Sisters runs for three more performances. It is an important work in the landscape of modern chamber opera and deserves to be seen and experienced. If such a show can result from collaborative opera, let’s have more of it in spades.

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