Following the news that Vancouver Opera would be switching to a festival model for financial reasons, presenting Nico Muhly’s Dark Sisters was a bold choice. A chamber opera premiered in 2011 focusing on fundamentalist polygamy, it proved particularly timely given the attention recent media scrutiny on polygamy in British Columbia. Largely mediated by excellent musical values, it proved a surprisingly accessible and relevant evening at the theatre, though perhaps slightly too accessible in some ways for its complex subject.

Melanie Krueger (Eliza) © Tim Matheson
Melanie Krueger (Eliza)
© Tim Matheson

The primary issue with the work is Stephen Karam’s libretto, which is well paced if rather predictable. Too often, the libretto slipped into sentimentality, especially at moments where you would expect the greatest intensity. More troublingly, none of the characters seem to develop over the course of the opera. Eliza, the fifth wife who eventually rebels against the sect, starts the opera every bit as alienated and disobedient as when she finally leaves the other wives. Similarly, the suicide of her fellow sister-wife Ruth becomes less emotionally devastating due to the fact that her instability has been blindingly obvious from the very beginning of the opera. In general, it becomes far harder to empathize with these women as we don’t see them develop and grow over the course of the evening. The one masterstroke in the libretto is having the central “Prophet” as well as the television talk-show host sung by the same singer – a fascinating if undeveloped consideration of the roles of religion and media in the exploitation of women.

These drawbacks were somewhat mitigated by Muhly’s music. Scored for 13 instruments, Muhly managed to bring out a shocking array of colours and textures that recalled that of Britten or even Ravel. Similarly, Muhly is an undisputed master at writing for the voice, switching easily from liturgical chorales to talk-show jingles while always maintaining both lyricism and clarity of text. The score is rife with references to Copland, Poulenc, Glass and church hymns. If anything, the music is too referentially witty, coming at the expense of Muhly’s own voice as a composer. At the end of the evening, one is left with the impression that the music was pleasant, brilliantly assembled, but perhaps lacking that final degree of memorableness.

Melanie Krueger (Eliza), Eve-Lyn de la Haye (Zina) and Heather Pawsey (Presendia) © Tim Matheson
Melanie Krueger (Eliza), Eve-Lyn de la Haye (Zina) and Heather Pawsey (Presendia)
© Tim Matheson

The mostly-local cast demonstrated the richness of vocal and theatrical talent in Vancouver. Led by Melanie Krueger’s tireless, theatrically involved Eliza, the six women were well differentiated by voice type and vocal colour and resulted in a satisfying and coherent ensemble. The standout of the cast was Megan Latham’s Ruth, whose visceral theatrical intensity and rich mezzo-soprano eliminated any trace of the saccharine from her character’s final monologue and Sapho-style leap off the cliffs of Arizona. The performance was anchored by bass-baritone Thomas Goerz, who aptly differentiated his roles as the prophetic husband and the smooth-talking television host. Most impressive of all was conductor Kinza Tyrrell’s confident mastery of the score, maintaining an impressively tight ensemble while modulating the orchestral sound from rich chords to the sparest of celesta arpeggios. Overall, a successful and pleasant evening at the theatre, but one that did not leave me as moved or provoked as the subject matter might call for.