Dark Sisters was written by Nico Muhly with the libretto by Stephen Karam. It had its first performance in 2011 and its recent Canadian debut in Vancouver.
The story focuses on the lives of six women living in a fundamentalist community, their personal conflicts and the religious and political tension generated by state intervention and media hysteria.
The singers and the musicians are more than equal to the task. Their difficulty is that they are not given much to work with. The story would have been more successful as theatre rather than as a musical production. While the librettist succeeds in creating a credible mood with his recitative style, the music often fails to support the voices. At critical junctures it fails to enhance a mood or an idea. In the transition from Eliza’s exhortation to her sister-wives to leave their community to Ruth’s assent to the mesa where she embraces her fate the music seems to vanish altogether. The listener is left to wonder whether the score was written for its own sake.
The final scene is flat and disappointing. There is no serious vocal tension between Eliza and her daughter Lucinda. Their verbal exchanges lack the vocal dynamics that are to be expected during such an encounter. There is also no apparent sorrow or sense of loss as Eliza walks away, unable to convince her to leave.
Soprano Melanie Krueger as Eliza is given the broadest vocal range of all the singers. Her voice is strong and it conveys a sense of her inner strength as she sets out the unsettling nature of her feelings and concerns.
Thomas Goerz Bass-Baritone as the Prophet has a voice well suited to his role but the characteristics one would expect of a person in his position (powerful, persuasive) are not evident in his delivery, particularly when he is exhorting his family to follow the precepts of the faith in times of crisis. As Larry King, however, his voice is more imitatively dynamic.
Megan Latham Mezzo-Soprano gives a solid performance as Ruth in a voice appropriate for her portrayal of grief and joyful resignation.
Eden Tremayne Soprano as Lucinda misses an important opportunity to describe a more animated teenager thoroughly disappointed with her mother. Her singing range is far narrower than it should be in this deeply emotional encounter.
Music Director Kinza Tyrell does as well as possible with a very thin and not well focused musical score. The program notes suggest it was written to leave room for the performers’ interpretations. The composer would have better served the musicians and singers by giving them more not less to work with if he expected to deliver a clear vision.
The staging is minimalistic, perhaps in keeping with the idea of a spare existence in a rather barren landscape.
The inclusion of this new opera is clearly an experiment as part of the Vancouver Opera‘s current season. While the idea is laudable, this selection does not showcase the talents of the performers it has available. In summary it can best be described as thin gruel.