Set on a dramatically raked stage that feels as if the performers might slide down into the orchestra pit, Dark Sisters tells the story of a group of women whose lives are suddenly balancing on an emotional precipice. The five mothers are all married to a self-proclaimed prophet of God (Kevin Burdette); as the hundred-minute chamber opera opens, the police have just taken away the women’s many children, echoing the headline-grabbing 2008 raid on the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Texas. Members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Ruth (Eve Gigliotti), Almera (Jennifer Check), Presendia (Margaret Lattimore), Zina (Jennifer Zetlan), and Eliza (Caitlin Lynch) call out the names of their boys and girls in a haunting group chorale as they lay items of the children’s clothing on the ground while a projection of dark clouds moves slowly behind them. Although four of the women steadfastly support their way of life, Eliza starts to question hers, recalling her fate as a teen bride and hoping to save to her sixteen-year-old daughter, Lucinda (Kristina Bachrach), who is already promised to a much older man.
In the second act, featuring a dramatically modern multimedia set and video design by Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer, the women find themselves on an investigative news program, being interrogated by a slick host (Burdette) about their lifestyle. While three of them again staunchly defend themselves, Zina looks as if she is about to go off the deep end as Eliza considers breaking rank and expressing individual thought. Conceived by thirty-year-old composer Nico Muhly, whose Two Boys collaboration with playwright Craig Lucas and director Bartlett Sher will come to the Met in 2013-14, Dark Sisters is a relatively slight but compelling minimalist opera, with Muhly’s subtle score referencing religious hymns. Stephen Karam, whose Sons of the Prophet is currently running at the Laura Pels Theater, wrote the libretto, which is direct and to the point, offering a surprise or two about polygamy and choice but generally not overly imaginative, which is also true of Annie-B Parson’s barely there choreography. Conductor Neal Goren nearly steals the show with his very visible prompts, while Check’s bravura voice leads the strong cast, directed by Rebecca Taichman. A co-commission of Gotham Chamber Opera, Music-Theatre Group, and the Opera Company of Philadelphia, the world-premiere run at John Jay College’s Gerald W. Lynch Theater has two performances remaining, on November 17 and 19, in conjunction with the school’s annual “Art of Justice” performance series.