Review: Vancouver Opera's "Dark Sisters"

Review: Vancouver Opera’s “Dark Sisters”

Nico Muhly is a fascinating character. Muhly straddles between the worlds of pop and classical, continuously pushing the envelope and reinventing his own wheel. Only in his mid-30s, Muhly has seen a lot of success in his relatively young career, working with the likes of Björk, Sufjan Stevens, and Usher, scoring films ranging from The Reader to Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, releasing four of his own albums and, you know, casually penning two of his own operas. The first of these was 2010’s Dark Sisters, which Vancouver Opera is presenting its take on at The Playhouse this week.

Dark Sisters lives up to its title, certainly. Over the course of two hours, the audience is transported to a grim commune where half a dozen “sister wives” lament over the recent abduction of their many children by state officials. They have been left alone with “Father,” the self-appointed prophet, who is masking his own truth of being a sinister polygamist Svengali. The plot progresses post abduction as the half dozen wives battle amongst themselves and eventually a lone wolf within the pack begins to discover this really wasn’t the world she ever wanted to be a part of.

Presenting a show like Dark Sisters in its season positions Vancouver Opera as a bold, progressive organization ready for blazing ahead and trying on new works rather than old standbys. Sisters is not a sure fire bet, it’s filled with material that will be jarring for many viewers, and is modern is most senses of the word. Were it not well done, Dark Sisters would have been a poor card to play, but Vancouver Opera’s production has the finesse and talent to make it a triumph.

Eden Tremayne as Lucinda and Thomas Goerz as the Prophet in Vancouver Opera’s production of Nico Muhly and Stephen Karam’s Dark Sisters. All photographs by Tim Matheson.

Sisters is fascinating, mesmerising and impressive– but it’s also creepy and spine-tingling at its core. It embraces its subject with a surefire loyalty. The plot ends up being a tad predictable, but it’s satisfying to see how it plays out. A show like this would not be wise to wrap itself up into a neat, tidy package at the end, so having the tale a bit scattered in its closing moments feels strangely satisfying.

The story is fairly stripped down and minimalist, but Dark Sisters is heavy in its content and delivery, making for a very unique night out at the opera. This is definitely a far cry from traditional fare, but that’s precisely why this production is so fascinating. It is said that nothing is original anymore and that every story has already been told. But who would have thought an opera about polygamy featuring a Larry King character would be this impressive?

Sisters is a triumph on several levels. Artistically speaking, the cast’s voices are stunning, the set is understated but perfect, the costumes are sharp, and the show also features a clever technological trick in the second half that adds some dimension beyond the stage and creates an additional lens into the wives’ distorted vantage point.

Dark Sisters is atypical in its execution, an undisputed rebel in its own genre. As a collective piece of art, Vancouver Opera have found an interesting piece of work here and made it their own with a brilliant treatment that is as thought provoking as it is considered. The only problem here will be topping it next time around.

Melanie Krueger as Eliza and Thomas Goerz as the Prophet in Vancouver Opera’s production of Nico Muhly and Stephen Karam’s Dark Sisters. All photographs by Tim Matheson.

Main image:Melanie Krueger as Eliza and Thomas Goerz as the Prophet in Vancouver Opera‘s production of Nico Muhly and Stephen Karam’s Dark Sisters. All photographs by Tim Matheson.

Vancouver Opera‘s production of Nico Muhly and Stephen Karam’s Dark Sisters runs through December 12 at Vancouver Playhouse.

Tickets are available here.