Review: Hypnotic and Frank, Muhly's Two Boys Gets U.S. Premiere at the Met

Tuesday, October 22, 2013 - 12:00 PM

A scene from Nico Muhly's 'Two Boys' A scene from Nico Muhly's 'Two Boys' (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

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.


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Comments [9]

Avery Manigault from Kent, CT

I saw it last night and found myself sitting on the edge of my seat the entire night. What beautiful music! And what a gripping, disturbing story! It also heartened me to see the youngest and most diverse audience I've seen at the Met in years. Bravo to the Met!

Nov. 07 2013 06:38 AM
CeeCee from New York City

Saw it today. I am season ticket holder. Love the oldies, but this was one of the most thrilling performances I have seen in my many years going to the Met. Bravo to all involved!

Nov. 02 2013 11:35 PM
Charles Fischbein from Front Royal, Va.

While David Patrick Stearns wrote a generally glowing review of Two Boy's opening at Metropolitan Opera, before hard working readers rush to purchase tickets to see it I felt I should post some other rather negative reviews of the Opera.
Anne Midgette, ( my favorit Opera Critic) from the Washington Post say's " I think Muhly has a good opera or several in him, down the road but this is not it."
Martin Bernheimer writes, "
An impeccable cast sang as if it a masterpiece were at hand but Nico Muhly's Opera is simply silly."
David Finkle of Huffington Post writes, " Nico Muhly's Two Boys proves one and one equals disappointment"
Manuela Hoelterhoff of Bloomberg say's, " Muhly's internet creep gets stabbed at Met Premiere."
The Wall Street Journal sums things up by saying, "It was all clean and engaging, but it may not bridge the Opera House generational divide. A puzzled elderly woman asked me afterward, "Why did he kill him?", a representative of the millennial generation felt it was an old persons view of the internet commenting " As someone who spends a lot of time on the internet I am a little offended"
A quick look at the empty seat count for the remaining performances shows a very slow box office.
I hope the cost of this experimental Opera has been covered by some generous Met donors, or the Met is in for just one more Gelb box office fiasco. God Speed, Charles Fischbein

Oct. 24 2013 09:51 AM
Bill from Manhattan

I wonder where the critic was sitting that he thought there was "an audience sensation". If he came up to the Grand Tier he would have encountered row upon row of bored people wondering when the darn thing would end. The sensation was pretty much a great New York "meh."

Oct. 23 2013 08:10 PM

I was at the Met last night and appreciate your review. In fact your reviews are such a breath of fresh air compared to the goose step middle brow drone of AnthonyAlexJustin you kind of keep me sane. Just wondering why you consider 'intentionally creepy sexual frankness' such a step from two young men dressing as Albanians and seducing each others girlfriends or you know the brother - sister or a Duke seducing the young daughters of his jester. This was a most riveting evening but

Oct. 22 2013 06:02 PM
Jared Lowe from Southwest Virginia

I also heard it last night, ironically enough, through the Internet on the Met's website. There were definitely some blush-worthy moments! One of the most memorable and relevant operas I've heard, and I've seen quite a few.

Oct. 22 2013 04:07 PM
Gaydon from New York

I saw the dress rehearsal of this, and was totally riveted-one of the best theatrical experiences in a long time.

Oct. 22 2013 03:23 PM
Sanja from London

I've not seen the Met version ax yet, but this review certainly makes me want to! However, in my view, the title is more than apt.

Oct. 22 2013 03:13 PM
joan from Sarasota

speaking from the far from NYC heartland of Sarasota, from where I listened to the work on line, I saw bring it on! Don't underestimate us or Muhly's music.

Oct. 22 2013 02:31 PM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns, Amanda Angel and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

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