Polygamist opera Dark Sisters is a brave undertaking

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      Music by Nico Muhly. Libretto by Stephen Karam. A Vancouver Opera production. At the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre on Thursday, November 26. Remaining performances on November 27 and 28, and December 3, 6, 10, and 12

      “Keep sweet” is the mantra of the polygamist sister-wives in the Prophet’s mountain compound, but “Stay patient” is my advice for those planning to attend this brave but puzzling Vancouver Opera production.

      Act 1 is musically foggy, theatrically dubious, and only fitfully engaging, but Act 2 features singing and staging that will sear your brain.

      It’s probably best to consider the first half of Dark Sisters as a crash course in composer Nico Muhly’s musical language—or languages, as he doesn’t stay true to any one dialect for long. There are sections of near-liturgical choral writing for the five women at the story’s core; burly chords lifted explicitly and unapologetically from Aaron Copland’s mid-century American modernism; and one or two passages of unalloyed minimalism. Remarkably, this does not come across as pastiche, but the workings of an astute, if eclectic, musical mind. In that Muhly is helped by several moments of true delight and wonder, including one in which the tintinnabulations of a celeste underscore a starlit nighttime scene, and another in which a string quartet morphs into a harmonium to accompany a simple hymn.

      Still, it was hard to connect with the story, especially when the Mormon-fundamentalist women, whose children have just been seized in a government raid, descend into petty sexual bickering over who will share the Prophet’s bed. Yes, their need for comfort is understandable, but isn’t worry generally the antithesis of desire? This passage read, on opening night at least, as a failed or even ugly stab at comic relief.

      After intermission, things pick up. The women are grilled by TV newsman Larry King, in a scene that lets Muhly depart from his episodic approach to explore a rippling, rhythmically potent theme at length. Sister Ruth delivers a gorgeously melodic aria that fully explains why, just a moment later, she flings herself off a fatal cliff. Sister Eliza, the rebel of the group, makes a spellbinding plea for freedom—and then leaves, heartbroken over having to part from her teenage daughter, who is pledged to a much older man.

      No one is promised a happy future, but change, we’re told, is possible. That’s not a bad message to walk out with.

      Singers Eve-Lyn de la Haye (Zina), Heather Pawsey (Presendia), Karen Ydenberg (Almera), Megan Latham (Ruth), and Melanie Kruger (Eliza) handle Muhly’s taxing score with aplomb. They also do as much as they can to differentiate themselves, given that they’re dressed in muted and nearly identical pioneer dresses. A small chamber orchestra, under conductor Kinza Tyrrell, is impeccable.

      Casting bass-baritone Thomas Goerz as both King and the Prophet is more problematic: he’s unctuously perfect as the TV host, but lacks heat and authority in his primary role. He’s got five wives, for Christ’s sake! The voice of God speaks through his mouth. But he has all the charisma and threat of a middle manager at ICBC.

      Dark Sisters is worth attending—for the music, and for its theatrically compelling second half. But don’t expect more than a minor work from a young composer who is otherwise emerging as a major talent.