Nico Muhly is one of the most well known and prolific names in the American under-40 compositional set, with major premieres and CDs all over the place. His first opera, Two Boys, was seen this year at the English National Opera (and will be coming to the Met in the future), and his second, Dark Sisters, was just premiered by the Gotham Chamber Opera (along with the Music-Theatre Group co-producing). Everyone else has already written about it and new music isn’t quite my fach, but I did see it so I thought I should register my thoughts. It’s an honorable effort but less than fully satisfying.
The plot deals with a police raid on a polygamous household somewhere in the West of the type associated with Warren Jeffs. We open with the five wives, and the only other cast members are one daughter and the husband–so there’s a lot of Rosenkavalier trio-ing going on, particularly since all except one of the women are sopranos of a more or less lyric sort (and the exception is a lyric mezzo). There is rather less variety in their vocal writing than in, say, Poulenc’s in Dialogues of the Carmelites. Compounding this problem is Stephen Karam’s largely static libretto, which shies away from staging dramatic events in favor of lots of meditations and kindly conversations. While the women are eventually developed as characters, the action is awfully thin and several dramatic events stay unnecessarily offstage. I like this idea for an opera–it’s a contemporary topic with a lot of emotional punch. But it’s underdeveloped here.
Muhly’s music is often compared to that of his mentor Philip Glass, but he’s not such a strict minimalist, and the influence of Renaissance English music in all its consonant contrapuntal glory is quite audible. The repeating figures are largely kept to the orchestra (a chamber ensemble of around a dozen players). So I’m going to describe it as Janacek only with Tallis in the place of the folk song. Most of it is at an andante con moto tempo, mezzo forte. It’s very beautiful, but it’s often underwritten and lacking in character, and lacks contrast in a drama already suffering from sameness.
One other strength of the opera is its scale, which has a nice intimacy befitting Gotham Chamber Opera. Rebecca Taichman’s production is really excellent, balancing naturalistic acting and more poetic images in a way that flows naturally. (It’s not a fair comparison, but it’s better than any direction we’ve seen at the Met so far this season.) The simple production emphasizes a harsh natural world that fits the music, though its symbolism is never really echoed in the libretto (the wives seem to suffer less from an empty world than a crowded and confined one). The cast is also excellent, particularly Caitlin Lynch’s even, rich tone as the most resistant of the wives, Eliza. Jennifer Check, who often sings small roles at the Met, showed a beautiful piano and luminous color as Almera. There wasn’t really a weak link in the cast, which also included Jennifer Zetlan in the Soeur Constance role and Kevin Burdette as both the husband and a TV interviewer in the second act. (The composer and librettist could have helped him make the former a more complex figure, though.)
Muhly is be in a difficult position. He’s gotten so much attention so early on that expectations are very, perhaps unreasonably, high. (One thinks of Dudamel.) Don’t write him off, but I’m not convinced he’s there yet.
One performance remains, tonight, November 19, then the opera travels to Philadelphia in the spring.
Nico Muhly and Stephen Karam, Dark Sisters. Gotham Chamber Opera/Music-Theatre Group, 11/12/2011. Production directed by Rebecca Taichman and conducted by Neal Goren. Full cast listed here.