Vancouver Opera
Dark Sisters by Nico Muhly, libretto by Stephen Karam

Dates and Venue November 26, 27 & 28 at 7:30pm, December 3, 4 & 5 at 7:30pm, December 6 matinée at 2pm, December 10 & 12 at 7:30pm | Vancouver Playhouse Theatre

Director Amiel Gladstone Conductor Kinza Tyrrell Assistant Conductor Tina Chang Set Designer Pam Johnson Costume Designer Parvin Mirhady Lighting Designer Gerald King Projection Designer Jamie Nesbitt Stage Manager Melissa Rood

Zina Eve-Lyn de la Haye Presendia Heather Pawsey Almera Karen Ydenberg Ruth Megan Latham Eliza Melanie Krueger Lucinda Eden Tremayne Prophet Thomas Goerz

Sung in English with SURTITLESTM

Reviewer John Jane

The Vancouver Opera production of Dark Sisters is a Canadian premiere. It focuses on the lives of a group of women who reside at a plural marriage community shortly after authorities raided their ranch and removed their children for alleged abuse.

It all starts with five women appearing in various sections of the auditorium dressed in modest, full length frocks and simple hair styles crying (musically) for their missing children. The women are “sister-wives" living in a polygamous Mormon commune, married to an implacable spiritual leader. He is known to the audience only as "Prophet," but to the women as “Father,” even though he is their husband. He is a doyen who uses his own vision of righteousness as a means of establishing and retaining his authority.

Nico Muhly’s spare score evokes the stark realities of rural America, one of open fields and backroads that lead to nowhere in particular. He creates repeating patterns of tonal elements to form song cycles. The arrangements are lean and mean, with certain sections sounding distinctly undernourished. But perhaps that is the whole purpose, since it places bigger demands on the singers. Dark Sisters is definitely a singer's opera, with the orchestra, very capably led by Maestra Kinza Tyrrell, playing a sedulous supporting role.

Muhly isn’t afraid to use derivative material and integrate it into the opera. Such is the case with Two Little Hands from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints songbook and the famous hymn Abide with Me heard briefly during the funeral scene.

Director Amiel Gladstone, succeeds in helping the audience in identifying the distinctive personalities of the “sister-wives.” In spite of the women’s similar outward appearance, we were quickly able to single out the women’s individual strengths and shortcomings from their vocal style. However, he doesn’t quite manage to fill in the gaps in the opera’s dramatic arc. Eliza, the opera's heroine plans to escape the commune’s confines mainly to avoid her daughter Lucinda’s similar fate to her own – that of an unwilling child bride. Lucinda, however, appears complicit in the arrangement and it doesn’t seem clear whether Lucinda was one of the children seized by the authorities.

Soprano Melanie Krueger showed off both her beautiful voice and a natural talent for drama in the role of rebellious wife Eliza. Mezzo- soprano Megan Latham delivers a poignant, heart-breaking performance as the emotionally disturbed Ruth. Thomas Goerz was appropriately evil as the sanctimonious Prophet, but was much less successful as a cartoonish talk show presenter who goads the women on his television program. Eve-Lyn de la Haye and Heather Pawsey (Zina and Presendia) shared what was arguably the most intriguing duet as they fight over which of them can claim the Prophet's preference.

Creators Nico Muhly and Stephen Karem take a philosophically neutral position to Dark Sisters’s central themes – perhaps wisely – leaving audiences to discriminate between ‘right and wrong.’

© 2015 John Jane