Opera review: Pittsburgh Opera's approach gives 'Dark Sisters' added punch

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The ending of Nico Muhly's "Dark Sisters" taps you on the shoulder before it punches you in the gut.

The main character Eliza -- one of the opera's five sister-wives who belong to a polygamist sect -- is about to depart from her family's compound in the American Southwest. "Only lonely me," she sings, as she prepares to leave the familiar realm she inhabits for the unknown world beyond, following the instinct that the latter must, somehow, be better.

'Dark Sisters'

Where: Pittsburgh Opera at CAPA Theater, Ninth Street at Fort Duquesne Boulevard.

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday, 8 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Sunday.

Tickets: $50; www.pittsburghopera.org or 412-456-6666.

The rocky stage had formed a literal split between Eliza and her family, who had just sung a divine chorale in harmony with the orchestra. "Let's see," Eliza hesitantly croons. The instruments intone a haunting chord that doesn't resolve.

It is an end but not a resolution, and it almost -- almost -- leaves one wondering whether her doubt might not be unfounded.

So concludes Pittsburgh Opera's stirring "Dark Sisters," on run at the CAPA Theater. The company is presenting a new production of the opera -- which premiered at New York's Gotham Chamber Opera in 2011 -- that almost entirely features Pittsburgh Opera's own resident artists. Mr. Muhly, the young American composer, recently had his opera "Two Boys" commissioned and performed at the Metropolitan Opera.

"Dark Sisters" explores the lives of the women who reside at the polygamist compound after state officials have raided their home and taken away their children for alleged abuse. The women's husband, the Prophet, goes to the desert to pray, telling his wives to remain obedient. Eliza expresses doubt about her and her sisters' lifestyle, particularly upon learning that her own daughter is to be wedded to a much older man. The plot comes to a head when Eliza betrays the Prophet and her sister-wives, confessing on national television that she had been married as a girl.

The chamber opera's dark score is at times harsh, minimalist and lyrical. There was a unity of vision to the production that gave the haunting music and libretto, stark set and austere ambiance an added punch. Its most moving moments featured the whole ensemble and showed off that unified concept through the singers' smooth blend and the characters' mob mentality. The stage direction by resident artist George Cederquist offered a human side to the characters in what could have been an unsympathetic interpretation of their words.

As Eliza, soprano Jasmine Muhammad showed off her gorgeous voice and natural sense of drama in the demanding lead role. The part required athletic chops, which she executed with occasionally variable success, but when she met the charge, her voice was chillingly beautiful.

Bass-baritone Joseph Barron lent his striking, buzzy vocals to the double role of the Prophet and the television anchor, King. He demonstrated a full, dark vibrato, although his depiction of the unlikable Prophet was perhaps too kind.

The opera's other female characters were feelingly interpreted by the rest of the cast. As Almera, soprano Alexandra Loutsion had a voice that was dramatic and controlled, particularly during her duet with Eliza. Mezzo-soprano Nicole Rodin gave a warmly sung, multidimensional depiction of Ruth, who committed suicide in a poignant scene in the second act.

Soprano Meredith Lustig as Zina and mezzo-soprano Samantha Korbey as Presendia showed off strong chemistry, albeit with occasional balance issues. In one scene, the two fight over the Prophet's love, and turn the creepy line, "Keep sweet," into a surprisingly funny one. Rebecca Belczyk provided fine support as Eliza's daughter, Lucinda.

The taut set, designed by Dan Daly, was simple but effective, with russet wooden slats shaped like mountains serving as the governing scenic element. Glenn Lewis conducted the appropriately urgent orchestra.

Elizabeth Bloom: ebloom@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1750. Twitter: @BloomPG.

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