As its second feature, Boston University's Fringe Festival brought up-and-coming composer Nico Muhly's two-act opera, "Dark Sisters" to the stage. The Metropolitan Opera's upcoming premiere of his work,"Two Boys," thrust the young American composer into the limelight. Muhly has a knack for pinpointing operatic themes of the 20th and 21st century, but many of these modern themes, though interesting, have proved difficult to translate into gripping stage drama. His musical style is sophisticated and picturesque, but "Dark Sisters," though compact, lapsed occasionally into monotony at no fault of the singers.
Though "Dark Sisters" is dominated by clear, bright, female voices, it retains an overwhelmingly oppressive sound from start to finish. As the opera opens, the sister-wives lament the loss of their children, who have been taken in a government raid of polygamous compounds. During this first scene, Muhly introduces some of his most successful musical ideas: the harmonious, chorale-like singing of the sister-wives, that serves as a facade for these broken women, and its subsequent breakdown into disorienting dissonance. Through much of the opera, the wives sing in unity, but Muhly allows these false sentiments to stagger out of time and digress into cacophonous discord.
Ji Eun Park brought warm charisma to the opera's subversive protagonist, Eliza. Though her Act I monologue lacked much musical intrigue, Park shaped a strong, resolute persona with minimal resources. The opera's critical take on polygamy was embodied most prominently in the shallow friendship between the two unwaveringly devout wives, Zina, sung by Kasey King, and Presendia, sung by Sara Womble. Together they spun sleek, good-natured phrases that deteriorated into scathing fits of jealousy. Their deep-seeded rivalry was revealed in their pitiful, yet spiteful prayers that the Prophet would chose their bed over their fellow sisters'.
While Zina and Presendia see Eliza's defiance as a weakness that could bring them closer to the Prophet, Almera, sung by Kaitlin Bertenshaw, was much more genuine. Bertenshaw sang a sympathetic and conflicted Almera; it was not belief, but fear for both herself and Eliza that seemed to motivate Almera's devotion. In her dream narrative, Almera turns a blind eye to the implications of her haunting words, but Bertenshaw sang the passage with glowing innocence tinged with uneasiness, as if doubt scratched just below the surface. Her supplications for Eliza to "keep sweet" were both touchingly earnest and frightfully coerced.
Emily Harmon carried most of the opera's dramatic pull in the tragic role of Ruth. The death of Ruth's two children as well as her role in driving Eliza from the faith gnawed at her conscience until her death. Harmon's mellow voice lent tenderness to the anguished phrases of the guilt-plagued victim.
As the only male voice of the piece, it was only fitting that Zack Rabin, who sang the Prophet, had a dark, weighty tone. Rabin's penetrating sound and towering stature pervaded the stage and intensified the Prophet's self-righteous character. Even in the Prophet's absence, he manifested himself in the plush harmony of his wives' obedient chanting, of which Eliza was the only dissenter.
The upbeat rhythms that open Act II create an appropriately commercial atmosphere for the televised interview with the sister-wives. The wives fidgeted and exchanged shady glances before answering the interviewer's questions in unconvincingly optimistic, yet hesitant unity. It is in this scene that Eliza comes forward and broadcasts the stifling truth. Park seized this golden moment; her voice soared weightlessly in this resiliently hopeful moment.
Unfortunately the moment is short-lived and, though the children are returned to their compounds, Eliza is scorned by her former sisters and her daughter. And so the opera ends, with no heart-warming reconciliation or closure, but plenty to ponder.
Allison Voth lead a tight, stable performance. Though two pianos do not provide the music with much color, Noriko Yasuda and Voth did a commendable job holding down the fort. Greg Simonds succeed in adding a little ambiance to the otherwise stoic piano accompaniment with a variety of percussive sounds.
Although Muhly's "Dark Sisters" cannot be said to have distinctive arias, the musical forms he does choose challenge the listener and interact with opera's action and characters in complex ways. The opera may end of a dissatisfying note, but, as a whole, it provides plenty of food for thought.