This is a very American opera, an American story about the conflict between the laws of God and men set to an American brand of music. Muhly's score evokes Aaron Copland but also slyly subverts the hyper-Americanness: bright folk-ish melodies are twisted together until they darken; minor and dissonant flourishes suggest a corrupted core. (The music often sounds almost ethereally eerie; five female voices will do that.) Leo Warner's sets contribute to the mood: the inclined stage is unsettling, like a canted camera angle; the projected skies are ominous; Donald Holder's lighting is sharp and moody.
But the work isn't just all grand themes; it's also a rooted psychological study of wounded women, mothers unbalanced when denied their defining function of mothering. (Stephen Schwartz's recent Seance on a Wet Afternoon explored a similar kind of character.) Dark Sisters delves into the jealousies between wives, the loneliness and desperation of mothers who have lost their children, whether to the law or to the grave. Act II features the wives' group appearance on a cable-news talk show, hosted by a character called "King." The women's lines overlap in pretty harmony, as they offer talking points and show solidarity—they're presenting a unified front to the world, an image of normalcy, all projected through consonance and harmony. It's broken, of course, by Eliza, who confesses to practices of underage marriage. "This is amazing television," King sings. Ditto for new opera.
Dark Sisters will be performed again Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday nights at 8 p.m. at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College. More info here.