So anyways: way on back in early November I saw Dark Sisters (i.e. the other Nico Muhly opera, about polygamists in a splinter Mormon sect, with libretto by Stephen Karam). Reviews of this first run (it returns in Philadelphia in June) were, shall we say, very cautiously supportive and littered with a non-insignificant amount of commentary that had more to do with a canned meta-narrative (good for you classical music! sort of!) than the work at hand, but for my part I was pretty taken with it.
Here is a work that is really invested in using the possibilities of opera to support modern theatre, a marriage that seems so ideal but is rarely consummated. Works like "An American Tragedy" (though clearly I would go if they put it up again) seem disturbingly dominant in the major league new opera landscape, when the target demographic is making events out of pieces like "Nixon in China" and "Satyagraha" that look a lot more like the kind of straight theatre being made by interesting folks everywhere except the opera house. But I believe I was just bashing meta-narratives, wasn't I, so...specifics:
The score is an intimate and ever rewarding player in the piece--not just an extension of the characters' transient emotions but a manifestation of the illusion that surrounds and isolates them, the presence of the moral and religious code (patriarchy, yo) that structures the way they see the world. The heretical thoughts of Eliza, the rebellious wife at the center of the story, are tied to dissonant motifs that challenge the sweet, narcotic atmosphere established for the sister wives.
I dunno, maybe that sounds obvious, but the effect is deeply immersive, and realizes the central emotional tenet of what the piece is trying to convey about these women: to understand why they stay in lives that appear so dreadful means understanding not just how they are trapped, but how they feel comforted and tied to this world that is deeply ingrained in them. One of the most heartbreaking scenes in the piece is Armela's plaintive aria halfway through the first Act, in which she encourages Eliza to abandon her wayward thoughts to ensure they will be together in heaven. And yet, while doing a tremendous job of creating sympathetic characters in these women (as opposed to just victims) it also shows their cruelty and capacity to close ranks against their "sisters" under threat of offending their husband.
My chief quibble is with the pacing of the main narrative story about Eliza's decision to defect from the family. When, in the final scene, Eliza's daughter rejects her in favor of the sect Eliza has abandoned to save her, there should be more of an emotional punch, but it comes too quickly. I would almost prefer an ending with less resolution--perhaps a split scene where we see the daughter attending the funeral juxtaposed with Eliza coping with her strange new life on the outside.
Rebecca Taichman's production is mostly very strong, with a simple, arresting set evoking the red dirt of the desert, and the powerful recurring motif of the sisterwives' dresses stained with its dust providing memorable images. If anything, Taichman's staging abandons its abstract strengths too readily--I can imagine straightforward set pieces like the television interview with the sisters (in which a screen in the "studio" displays footage of the sisters being filmed real time while they sit on the opposite side of the stage) easily accommodate and in fact profit from less literal staging choices.
Though if I could make one big request of the staging--lose the video, k? Clearly, the scene is a television interview, and the temptation to use onstage video strong it is. But I can imagine a raft of different configurations that would increase the impact of this segment, and none involve the deadening, alienating effect of onstage video. Someday I would like to see a video gimmick done in such a way that the real-time feed looks something like the kind of real-world studio quality feed that is being portrayed, but until then it just evokes awkward home movies and it sucks.
I'm shortchanging the cast, but only because all the reviews two months ago were uniform in their praise. This was a first-rate group of singing actresses (and actor) and it was great to see what they were able to do with the very ample opportunities the score provides for distinctive statements by the key wife characters.