Review: Nico Muhly's Compelling, Uneven Tale of Online Tragedy

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This weekend, as the curtain at English National Opera came down on the world premiere of Two Boys – the well publicized first opera by Nico Muhly, with a libretto by Craig Lucas -- I decided to give myself more than a full day before starting to write. Just because a new work of art invokes the Internet does not require that we run immediately to a virtual message board with first impressions.

A world premiere is a strange thing, and so bear with me, please, through this introductory methodological note: Even though it’s odd to think of spoilers as a concern in an opera review, I’ve decided it’s best to leave the major, concluding narrative details of the story unspoiled for American audiences. (We don’t have enough new works to enjoy, sans the weight of knowing-every-single-thing-in-advance, and so I’m not going to take that refreshing experience away from you.)

Yet there’s no sense in teasing unduly. I knew quickly that I’d not only enjoyed the piece, but that I was looking forward to spending the weekend here with it bouncing around in my head. Had I not, I’d have written something quick about Two Boys not living up to all the hype of its Metropolitan Opera commission and early trial run in London, added in something about 29-year-old Muhly’s still-evident potential as a composer and then been done with my assignment.

Notionally a crime story, Two Boys features a middle aged, technically un-savvy detective named Anne Strawson who must piece together the particulars of a stabbing: a boy named Jake who, through internet chat-rooms, appears to drive another boy called Brian to kill him.

The opera is being sold as an online morality tale. You’re perhaps aware of this genre: it counts within its sphere such artifacts as Jonathan Franzen’s recent, anti-"social media" commencement address, a series of dire essays by a New York Times editor regarding Twitter’s deadening influence on the mind, as well as “The Social Network’s” tortured indecision about how assertively we should celebrate the cult of Mark Zuckerberg. This sort of concern can become boring rather fast. As Detective Carson’s own mother warns, in her small but crucial role, it’s unattractive to be “one of those people who complain about the young.”

Though as far as dark tidings about the desirability of our digital identities go, Two Boys seems much more interesting than any of those aforementioned attempts to understand or dissuade us from “the way we live online.” This is made possible by the opera’s naughtily seductive two-act structure. Its most complex and gripping music is stored in the long, linked second half, at which point the opera’s individual identities have been erased and abstracted and then threaded back together by the online abyss.

This wide-angle view comes into focus as a chorus chatters in the Internet’s language of abbreviations and casual insensitivities. Gradually, this mass is pared back down to a duet of online identities, which needs to be divided in half once more for the central mystery to be solved. (Muhly is well known for his choral music already, so to call this buildup and release his finest work for voices is tantamount to calling it the best music of his already celebrated career. So that’s what I’m calling it.)

By contrast, the first act of Two Boys moves like a television police procedural -- and it’s also, seemingly by design, as emotionally one-dimensional and dry as one. As multiple reviewers have noted, Muhly’s writing in the opera owes a lot to John Adams, and I’ll admit the choppy narrative fashion of the first act had me initially worried, as it recalled the dramatic limitations of Doctor Atomic more than, say, the terrifying momentum of The Death of Klinghoffer.

But Two Boys is a purposeful work, and wants to be stuck with to its conclusion. The Luddite detective has to understand the pull of the online environment before she can close the attempted murder case. When she, at last, makes a kind of peace with the technology – compelled by the song the Internet sings of itself – few listeners will argue that she should travel backward to her emotional status quo ante.

In this way, the language of Two Boys owns up in full to the dangers of personas created and consumed in the virtual sphere, but also prevents us from coming to the conclusion that we’d do best by abjuring them outright. There is, in the end, too much passion and mystery in this virtual church for its canons to be dismissed as easily as newspaper editorials may encourage.

The title, of course, refers to the two principal characters in the drama: the stabbing victim and the suspect. But just as the title also suggests each boy’s online identity as it relates to the real, empirical self, so does it conjure a sense of our being of two minds about technologies just now approaching a kind of hale adolescence: vigorous and under-policed, while coiled with the potential for violence.

I wasn’t convinced that Barlett Sher’s production did these complexities the greatest stage service. The brisk and frequent movement of his sets on wheels sometimes overwhelmed the movements the characters needed to make once the video-projection-ready structures had been rolled into place. The IM-chat-simulating videos and whirling capabilities of the staging were also impressive, but maybe overly distracting from the opera’s non-technological concerns (which are, gratifyingly, many in number).

A libretto provided to me by the English National Opera revealed some deleted stage business (not lines of dialogue, but blocking moves) that seem to have been debated up until just a couple of weeks ago. Presumably, more tweaks and rethinks will come as the piece makes its way to the Met. Regardless, Sher’s production gets a complex work up on the boards for us to look at and inspect—no small feat.

The singing also seemed, at times, stressed by the weight of getting across a world premiere. Susan Bickley, as the detective, powered the narrative engine all evening long, though there wasn’t a great range of expressive variety to her mezzo-soprano. Nicky Spence, playing teen suspect Brian, warmed up considerably in the second act, particularly by the point where he was required to sing with Joseph Beesley, the startlingly powerful-voiced boy soprano who played the diminutive Jake. And though it would not be uncommon for a world premiere to contain stretches of muffled playing, Rumon Gamba and the ENO orchestra charged through Two Boys with what sounded like an assured confidence. (Very rarely did I wonder about the difference between what was on the page and what I was hearing.)

While in London, I hung around to see Christopher Alden’s production of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As in his recent stagings for New York City Opera, Alden made a virtue out of rather static set backgrounds that supported his radical adaptations. For Midsummer, Alden moved the drama to the courtyard of a boys’ school, which is visited by a wandering adult on the eve of his wedding. He crumples to the ground, and then Britten’s version of the Shakespeare plays out as his dream.

Like a specter, he haunts the action from the margins for the first two acts – and then, in a twist that makes all of Alden’s conceits pay off at once, begins singing the Theseus role in the third act. With apologies to another work by the Bard, by the time Puck addressed the audience on behalf of the play’s shadows – by my troth, I’ll admit to wondering what a director of Alden’s talents could do with all the shadings suggested by Muhly’s town of unruly boys.