Magazine article Opera Canada

Vancouver Opera

Magazine article Opera Canada

Vancouver Opera

Article excerpt


Mormon polygamy--it's a thorny issue in these politically correct times, though I'm not sure it's a pressing issue on the average operagoer's radar. There's always some risk involved embarking upon anything new in the opera world, so Vancouver Opera is to be commended for staging the Canadian premiere of Nicolas Muhly and Stephen Karam's fact-based Dark Sisters, premiered in 2011 by New York's now-defunct Gotham Chamber Opera.

By taking "a balanced view" of the topic, Karam has created a serviceable libretto, but it could dig deeper and be much more pointed. These wives are simultaneously angry at their stifling lives and afraid of the outside world. Unfortunately, they have little outlet for their pent-up anger and-mostly--placidly accept their drab lot; it may be realistic, but it doesn't lend itself to on-the-edge-of-your-seat opera.

Paradoxically, Muhly s resolute avoidance of anything memorable in his musical material serves a useful purpose by underpinning the alienation between virtually all the opera's characters. Nobody is emotionally close, and the level of dramatic tension does not materially differ from the beginning to the end of the opera. Such well-known hymn tunes as "Abide with Me," though banal and a little too comforting in context, appear like a breath of tonal fresh air near the opera's close.

In a media interview before opening night, director Amiel Gladstone came out strongly on the side of the oppressed women by stating, "These men do horrible things. "Yet, in the VO staging (seen Nov. 28, 2015), Gladstone's direction was surprisingly even-handed and showcased all the singers admirably. Visually, Pam Johnson's sets are deliberately spare, with a wall running the width of the stage representing the rugged desert terrain in which the community lives. There's not much else, though a large television monitor looms omnipresent over the stage in Act II for the Larry King interview.

There were five wives: Heather Pawsey (Presendia), Megan Latham (Ruth), Karen Ydenberg (Almera), Eve-Lyn de la Haye (Zina) and Melanie Krueger (Eliza). All were eminently capable in their roles and sang the static recitative-like chants with fine ensemble. Krueger was eloquently persuasive in the focal role of the rebellious fifth wife and Latham memorable as the mentally unstable and, ultimately, suicidal second wife.

Bass-baritone Thomas Goerz ably shouldered the dual role of Prophet of God (but always referred to by his five wives as "Father") and the charismatic television host Larry King. Goerz seemed much more at home as King in interviews-simultaneously amusing and chilling-with the distraught Mormon wives, but didn't generate the despotic authority one might expect as the Prophet, a character convinced his word is law to his wives because he is, after all, a mouthpiece of God.

After nearly a decade on VO's musical staff, Kinza Tyrrell acquitted herself superbly in her first outing as conductor of a mainstage production. Her hands, elegant and graceful, clear and precise, occasionally were visible over the edge of the orchestra pit. They were an eloquent visual cue to her intense and focused direction, the 13-player orchestra (playing a total of 25 different instruments) responding in kind with a finely detailed yet rapturously intense rendition of Muhly's knotty, elaborate score. …

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