Opera goes online
Two Boys by Nico Muhly premieres at ENO
You have to wonder about the speed at which an opera might date which hinges on a foible of text-speak (or should that be txt-spk?) Though Nico Muhly and Craig Lucas’s well-crafted two-act piece on disguise and deception has deep roots in opera heritage – think Così fan tutte, Rigoletto – it’s so ‘of the moment’, peppered with dangerously specific online community customs, I can see the rewrite coming already.
Two Boys is based on a real story: a Mancunian 13 year-old took on multiple identities and so lured a paranoid 16 year-old (Brian, played by Nicky Spence) into knifing him through the heart behind a shopping centre. The opera unfolds through the eyes of Detective Anne Strawson, (an over-taxed but convincing Susan Bickley) a world-weary, whisky-drinking caricature of a TV detective, who, unaccountably, doesn’t seem to know how to switch on a computer.
It takes this analogue alien in a digital world nearly two hours to unravel the all-too-obvious layers of chat-room deception: she finally recognises the perpetrator’s thumb print in the spelling of one word.
Jake, the victim and perpetrator, is played with eerie confidence by school boy treble Joseph Beesley: it’s as if a monstrous Miles from The Turn of the Screw has taken on the identities of Peter Quint (here Peter, the rapist gardener), Miss Jessel (Fiona, the ‘civil servant’) and Flora (his sister Rebecca, beautifully sung by Mary Bevan, who injected a little life into the proceedings). In fact, Britten’s shadow falls across the whole opera, most audibly in its references to Death in Venice (a gong struck by a vibraphone is a homage to Britten’s gamelan writing) though it lacks any of that work’s rhythmic vitality and tension.
Everything unfolds with tasteful languor, not aided by Rumon Gamba’s leaden conducting. The default is John Adams with a slurp of Glass, a crackle of Stravinsky’s Symphony in C, while a church service is evoked with ersatz Herbert Howells.
That’s not to say there isn’t some beguiling writing from Muhly: the drama’s sinister, raw savagery may be missing in the music, but his scoring can be distinctive and original. Arresting colours and timbres linger in the memory: the pianissimo brass chorales, spell-binding low harps curdling with violins, the eerie choral polyphony that brilliantly conjures up a networked world.
Muhly has said he didn’t want to write a ‘morality tale’ or an oratorio, but it feels a bit like both. There are sermonising lines on the evils of cyber bullying and the fact these young people have lost their bearings. The slick staging relies on choral tableaux interwoven with the under-characterised lead roles and it seems we’re looking at the grubby alleys of Manchester from a great and dreamy distance.
Muhly is the hottest property in contemporary music - how many 29 year-old composers get a Met/ENO staging? - and for good reason, but where was the dramatist in this sonorous and languid piece? Still, I predict this sophisticated, pleasing, zeitgeisty production will be taken up around the world as the very model of a modern opera.
Helen Wallace is consultant editor of BBC Music Magazine
Two Boys runs at ENO until 8 July