The collaborative duo construct their ruminative piece around the highly-publicized 2008 YFZ (Yearning for Zion) ranch incident when the young of that Mormon community were removed on alleged child-abuse grounds. And yes, the work is about as far away in tone as can be from the Tony-winning Book of Mormon.
Dark Sisters has a Leo Warner, 59 Productions set and video design stark in a red-earth manner and on which projected clouds shift ominously. The matching action focuses on the five wives of domineering husband Prophet (Kevin Burdette, bass).
While wives Zina (Jennifer Zetlan, soprano), Almera (Jennifer Check, soprano) and Presendia (Margaret Lattimore, mezzo) hold fast to the belief that "perfect obedience produces perfect faith," Eliza (Caitlin Lynch, soprano) and Ruth (Eve Gigliotti, mezzo) question the suffocating tenet. Ruth is inconsolably mourning two deceased sons -- one drowned and one a cancer victim. Eliza is brooding about the declared engagement of 15-year-old daughter Lucinda (soprano Kristina Bachrach) to a 56-year-old elder.
As Karam develops the storyline and as Rebecca Taichman directs it in sympathy with its demands, the diverging courses that disillusioned Eliza and Ruth take (while the other three utter traditional Mormon ideology) provides the dramatic thrust. This includes in the show's relatively short two-act span, a second act television newscast presided over by a probing, professionally polite interviewer (Burdette) that functions well as a depiction of small-tube exploitation of social problems though less persuasively as satire.
By the somber fade-out, the women's sorrows engendered by religious inflexibility lead to downbeat endings that won't be detailed here but are clearly intended as harsh commentary on not only the patriarchal Mormon society but on patriarchies no matter where they're situated.
Muhly, who for some time has been coming on strong around the classical-music globe, delivers from the outset when the five desolate moms in a strikingly sung fugue beg for an answer to the whereabouts of their absent offspring. The questioning arias handed Eliza and Ruth are impassioned and sung by Gigliotti and Lynch with chilled commitment.
Yet, the score -- conducted with precision by Gotham artistic director Neal Goran -- unveils little of the invention that might be expected from someone garnering as much attention as Muhly. For instance, when the strings move in, or when thunderous chords crash, the sonorities may be melodically and theatrically effective but also not especially unpredictable.