Review: New opera tells emotionally intense story of 'Dark Sisters'

| Sunday, Jan. 26, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Pittsburgh Opera's annual January productions at Creative and Performing Arts High School have built a loyal following. The shows feature uncommonly interesting repertoire, often contemporary opera, performed by the company's resident artists.

The large audience Jan. 25, which was undeterred by the snow and chill, was rewarded with a compelling performance of Nico Muhly's “Dark Sisters.” Muhly, 32, is both prolific and a hot commodity. His first full-length opera was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera, which gave the premiere in October 2013.

“Dark Sisters” is a chamber opera for seven singers and 13 instrumentalists. It was first performed in 2011, the same year as the musical “The Book of Mormon.”

The sisters are the wives in a polygamist family living in the west. The opera opens just after state officials have seized all the children under the suspicion they are being abused and forced to marry by male members of the section.

Muhly's musical language is imaginative, flexible and unfailingly well-conceived dramatically. His declamation rings true.

The opera opens with the sisters entering one by one, singing of their lost children. It's a scene that builds to emotionally intense five-part counterpoint. The emotions are individual. When the sisters are emotionally together, the vocal parts are together, too.

Muhly and librettist Stephen Karam treat the family's values with respect and sincerity, as well as its assertion of religious freedom. That's not to say they sugarcoat the views of the husband and father, the self-proclaimed Prophet. By normal standards, he's extremely manipulative and paternalistic.

The crucial dramatic conflict within the family begins when one of the sisters, Eliza, asks why only he receives revelations. Jasmine Muhammd gives an intense but finely nuanced portrayal of Eliza, who will break free of the family at the end of the opera.

The other sisters were all well cast. Meredith Lustig 'and Samantha Korbey, as Zina and Presendia, were favored wives who speculate about who will sleep with the Prophet that night, and aren't above a little catty dialoque ended by referring to the rule for the wives — “be sweet.”

Nicole Rudin gave impressive dimension to Ruth, an older sister “out to pasture,” who mourns her dead sons and will commit suicide in the second act. Alexandra Loutsion emphasized the sweetnes and compassion of Almera.

Joseph Barron was formidable as the Prophet, singing with impressive legato when presenting a vision. Although we see him hugging his wives, and speaking of family love, the Prophet is an opaque character.

Barron also played King, a television personality complete with Larry King-style suspenders, in the first scene of Act II. Although the sisters start by maintaining unanimity in making the public case for the return of their children, Eliza breaks ranks and reveals she was married at 16 and wants better for her daughter, Lucinda.

Rebecca Belczyk was emotionally direct as Lucinda, who chooses to stay with the family when her mother leaves at the end of the opera.

Resident artist stage director George Cedarquist handled the characterizations and stage space with skill. Glenn Lewis and the excellent ensemble made Muhly's imaginative orchestration a vital part of the action.

Pittsburgh Opera's production of Nico Muhly's “Dark Sisters' will be repeated at 7 p.m. Jan. 27, 8 p.m. Jan. 30 and 2 p.m. Feb. 2 at Creative and Performing Arts High School, 101 Ninth Street, Downtown. Admission is $50. Details: 412-456-6666 or

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or

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