The secret lives of teenagers are often fraught with matters that loom as large as life and death. But at the Metropolitan Opera's U.S. premiere of Two Boys on Monday, numerous lines were crossed in this tale about jail-bait seduction, layer upon layer of deception and, ultimately, mercy killing.
You wouldn't think it would go over well at the Met. Instead, Two Boys was an audience sensation. Even if you don't trust first-night ovations, the audience seemed genuinely entranced with the opera's intentionally creepy sexual frankness that no doubt went beyond anything previously seen on that stage.
Yet Nico Muhly's audience-friendly, minimalist-based music, Craig Lucas's arresting, well-calculated libretto, a dreamy, video-heavy production by Bartlett Sher and plenty of vocal charisma from the likes of Alice Coote were strong over-riding factors. Premiered by the English National Opera but heavily revised en route, it's a fully-realized package that, with any luck, will start a trend toward operas based on original, 21st-century stories.
Goodness knows this is one. Staged in a set colored in stark industrial grays (one might say, 50 Shades of Grey), the internet is a major character that allows a 13-year-old kid to assume many sexually bold disguises with a 16-year-old boy – the target of his manipulation. More universal elements include the pliability of logic (see also the Tracy Letts play Bug): The online communion between people happens without the ongoing reality check of the outside world. What 16-year-old kid wouldn't be taken in by tales of spy rings, especially when instructed to tell no one?
With a Michael Yeargan stage set in which huge screens reveal the words of chat-room exchanges as they're sung, the story dictated the formulation of a plot-driven operatic hybrid with exclamatory, naturalistic dialogue and brief cinematic scenes. Muhly (a master of so many styles that you're not sure which is the real him) simply did what was necessary at every turn, whether delivering sung dialogue with aggressive incidental music (that laudably left stage time for characters to think about what's happening) or falling back on the dramatically-specific layered counterpoint of John Adams. Substantial? Only sometimes, but always effective.
Paul Appleby and Alice Coote in Nico Muhly's 'Two Boys' (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)
More distinctive was Muhly's awestruck characterization of cyberspace, which was to this opera what the vast ocean was for Britten in Peter Grimes. Choral writing (there was lots) was even better, with sophisticated textures encompassing the Tower of Babel quality of the Internet, but one in which people aren't accountable for their words (which become increasingly meaningless). Conductor David Robertson helped fuse this stylistic sprawl into something that felt tight and coherent.
The vocal lines are dramatically required to be more rhetorical than lyrical, but Muhly was able to do both at once, allowing a great singer like Coote (who plays the detective investigating the case) to practice operatic art. Tenor Paul Appleby may enjoy a career breakthrough as 16-year-old Brian. Secondary roles were terrific, from boy soprano Andrew Pulver (as 13-year-old Jake) to veteran Judith Forst's comic relief as Coote's elderly mom.
A few missteps. The title, Two Boys, has little marquee value and suggests this is a gay love story (which it's not). Also, the Hofesh Shechter choreography wasn't bad but crowded the already well-populated stage. Neither problem is major. And though Two Boys may be too much for heartland HD simulcast audience (imagine the culture wars that could erupt with the opera's boy-soprano seducer), no reasonably seasoned opera house denizen will have to stretch to enter the piece's hypnotic theatricality.