‘Dark Sisters’ Sheds Light On Muhly’s High Opera Profile

Melanie Krueger, left, as Eliza and Eden Tremayne as Lucinda in 'Dark Sisters' at Vancouver Opera. (Production photos by Tim Matheson)
Melanie Krueger, left, as Eliza and Eden Tremayne as Lucinda in Nico Muhly’s ‘Dark Sisters’ at Vancouver Opera.
(Production photos by Tim Matheson)
By David Gordon Duke

VANCOUVER — Unlike companies who opt to play it safe in difficult times, Vancouver Opera, under the direction of James Wright, has made commitment to contemporary opera part of its mandate. Productions have included lavish stagings of John Adams’ Nixon in China and Tan Dun’s Tea: A Mirror of Soul. Now comes the first Canadian production of Nico Muhly’s first foray into opera, Dark Sisters, in a nine-performance run by Vancouver Opera through Dec. 12.

Eden Tremayne as Lucinda and Thomas Goerz as The Prophet.
Eden Tremayne as Lucinda and Thomas Goerz as The Prophet.

Muhly has become a sensation in the world of contemporary opera. Two Boys was premiered by the English National Opera in 2011 and made its Metropolitan Opera debut in 2013. (Click here for a review of that production.) Now Muhly is busy creating for the Met a high-profile piece based on the Winston Graham novel that inspired the Hitchcock thriller Marnie.

Dark Sisters, with a libretto by the American playwright Stephen Karam, was a joint commission by Gotham Chamber Opera, Music-Theatre Group, and Opera Philadelphia. Vancouver Opera’s presentation opened at the Vancouver Playhouse on Nov. 26.

Past Vancouver Opera commissions include Lillian Alling (2010) by John Estacio and Stickboy (2014) with a libretto by Shane Koyczan and music by Neil Weisensel. VO isn’t the only local presenter of new works; City Opera Vancouver produced Tobin Stokes’ setting of Margaret Atwood’s stylistically retro Pauline in 2014, and earlier this month Turning Point Ensemble launched air india with music by Irish composer Jürgen Simpson.

In one sense, reviving Dark Sisters (2011) is playing it a just a bit safe: The company is using a small civic theater, better known for recitals and chamber music, to mount a modest chamber opera with a small, mainly local, cast of singers and instrumentalists on a minimal set (one of the weakest aspects of the production, as it turns out). On the other hand, the decision to go with a work by fast-rising Muhly is more visionary: He’s still not well known by the general Vancouver audience and the subject – the aftermath of a police raid on a renegade compound of fundamentalist Mormons – is designed to generate controversy. It should be noted that the topic has extra resonance here in British Columbia, where such communities make their homes in the southern interior of the province.

The frisson of topicality was, no doubt, just what everyone had in mind: a fashionable contemporary theme playing with archetypal ideas of women, religion, and patriarchal societies, with a cast heavy on female singers. Adventurous? Pragmatic? Or both?

Composer Nico Muhly is on an operatic ascent.
Composer Nico Muhly is on an operatic ascent. (Matthew Murphy)

Karam’s libretto is professional but uninspired. Only a couple of characters have any significant depth, and the situations are entirely predictable. He fails to grasp the singular paradox of opera, which needs singable words but not too many of them.

Muhly’s contribution is far more impressive. While hardly groundbreaking, the score of Dark Sisters is finely crafted, a layered proposition that betrays a goodly number of strong influences — particularly, to my ear, Britten. Muhly speaks with a distinctive and eloquent voice, if not yet a particularly original one.

The composer crafts two especially striking solo showpieces. The first is an extended first-act soliloquy for the rebellious Eliza, the “fifth wife” and the work’s primary character, who questions her place in the universe as defined by her husband, The Prophet. Soprano Melanie Krueger delivered the part – indeed drove the show – with energy and enthusiasm. In the second act the sad, mentally troubled “second wife” Ruth, elegantly brought to life by mezzo-soprano Megan Latham, is given the most tender and believable moments in the piece, mourning her dead children and confronting the emptiness of her confined life — a moving, tragic aria by any standard.

Dark Sisters’ action is purposeful almost to the point of being rushed. Were there too many workshops, or too much emphasis on the bottom line of running time? There are moments when one would prefer to linger in the enchanting sound worlds Muhly creates.

As a production the revival is, like the libretto, solid but too rarely inspired. The set is unimaginative, though visual interest is created by Jamie Nesbitt’s clever use of projections. The pit ensemble of thirteen instrumentalists, led by VO’s principal répétiteur and assistant choir director Kinza Tyrrell, delivers with professional competence, but one can’t help feeling there is more innate poetry in Muhly’s score than we heard on opening night.

The same applies to the bulk of the cast, with the three standout exceptions of Krueger,  Latham, and bass-baritone Thomas Goerz, who essayed the role of The Prophet with smug self-satisfaction — a two-dimensional part, granted, but a good performance nonetheless.

Still needs caption.
Melanie Krueger as Eliza.

I’ll avoid the critical trap of presuming to settle Muhly’s place in the annals of opera based on a single work; nor will I dismiss Dark Sisters as an interesting debut by a tyro composer. No one knows what the future will bring for Muhly or how he will fulfill his brilliant promise. Dark Sisters is a far-better-than-average chamber work, practically conceived, with sometimes remarkable music.

For information about tickets, click here.

David Gordon Duke contributes reviews and essays to The Vancouver Sun and American Record Guide. He is academic coordinator at the School of Music, Vancouver Community College, and also teaches at the University of British Columbia.