02 Nov 2013

Two Boys at the Brave New Met

Whatever you think of some of the Metropolitan Opera’s recent productions, you cannot fault the Gelb administration for fearing to take risks.

Along with controversial new productions of pre 20th century works, the company recently performed John Adams’ Dr. Atomic, Thomas Ad├Ęs’ The Tempest and this season it is presenting its first commissioned opera, Nico Muhly’s Two Boys.

And you can’t have had the most casual relationship with opera without having heard or read about the Muhly work. In fact, you needn’t have had any idea that opera even exists as an art form, to have heard about it. Its libretto, based on an incident of Internet deception which took place in Manchester, England, had a Page One murky resonance recently for Americans in the romantic hoax perpetrated on San Diego Chargers’ linebacker Manti Te’o. To attract the young, hip and internet knowledgeable to the premiere, the Met advertised in real and virtual nooks and crannies of New York that had never seen opera ads, previews or posters before.

Two Boys is the first fruit of the Met/Lincoln Center Theater New Works Program, a commissioning project instituted in 2006 in which composers are paired with librettists, and eventually directors and designers, to develop new works for the two theaters. It’s a long, laborious process, which includes repeated workshops. For his first full length opera, Muhly was paired with a veteran writer Craig Lucas and producer Bartlett Sher. Yet even Two Boys’, world premier at the English National Opera in 2011, turned out to be a workshop. Since then the three have made numerous revisions of the libretto, music and staging. Fortunately the black clad spiky haired Muhly, now 32, and a prolific composer of classical works, as well as of pop, and movie music, is cooperatively inclined. “I’m so happy to change stuff “ he is quoted as saying, “I think most operas after their first performance get revised, since the beginning of time."

The libretto of Two Boys is presented as a police drama taking place in an industrial British city. Black and white cam tapes reveal 16 year old Brian, stabbing 13 year old Jake, and leaving him for dead. The task of unraveling how and why this happened is left to Anne Strawson, an oddly dense career detective, who strangely knows nothing about computers, and who is responsible for her mother’s care. It is a chance remark by her mother, which eventually leads her to understand the dimensions of the crime. Eventually, Strawson gets Brian to reveal an almost unbelievable story of the various people he met through a chat room, who led him to commit the crime. First there is Rebecca, then her brother, Jake, Fiona, their mother’s friend and a secret agent, the sinister gardener named Peter, all of whom drive him to the crime. They turn out to be the names of real people, recreated as inventions by the 13 year-old victim, the real Jake, who has engineered his own death.

The gist of the opera is in the manner in which these scenes unfold to reveal the characters’ backgrounds, as well as their real and imaginary encounters. “I go to school, I do my homework, I eat supper,” Brian tells Strawson as we follow his first tentative approach to a chat room, and his increasingly enticing, entangling, relationships with young Rebecca, seductive Fiona, frightening Peter, and finally with Jake himself. In Strawson’s first scene with her mother, we see her mother nag her about neglecting her appearance, and learn that in order to pursue her career, she had given up an infant son, who would now be Brian’s age.

Two Boys, with worried looking Strawson, conniving Jake, befuddled Brian, and an anonymous horde of chat room cohorts seeking they know not what of the Internet, is a dark tale with an undercurrent of delirium. Bartlett Sher’s production and Nico Muhly’s music capture its moods perfectly. Grayish blank panels shift from Strawson’s home to Brian’s, to Jake’s hospital room, with the silent rapidity of movie or television screens -and alternately serve as projection screens for wildly repetitive iterations of chat room dialogue. Textual representations and droning choral repetitions of fragments of internet “speech” such as “r u there?” appear repeatedly and fade, in flashing sometimes ominous animations created by 59 Productions. Muhly’s intriguing rhythmic orchestral patterns and striking harmonies, underline the delirium of the chatters’ amorphous yearnings. Costumes are drab and dull except for those imaginary characters, who seem real to Brian. Hofesh Shechter’s choreography of the chat room scenes illuminates the dull lives of the participants and the lurid possibilities offered by the Internet, as twisting, writhing dancers, perhaps portending evil, weave in out of the ranks of the massed “chatters’’.

In a brilliantly contrasting scene, ominous darkness gives way to peace as a stained glass window glows quietly in an Anglican Church. Here as the congregants sing and Brian comes face to face with the real Jake for the first time, Muhly’s music glows as well, with a kind of peace and limpidity. “Music of the English Renaissance and Tudor Music has been a cantus firmus through everything I do, not just musically, but also as a sort of philosophy of how to make music and think of yourself as a composer,” Muhly said in an interview.

BOYS_7371a.gifSandra Piques Eddy as Fiona and Andrew Pulver as the Boy soprano

Muhly’s large, imaginative musical palette includes pacing of vocal lines to understandable natural speech, and remarkable choral music. "Shimmering" is the word one most often encounters in reviews of Muhly’s chorales. There is a kind of dry Britten-like lyricism in his melodic writing, particularly in Strawson’s concluding aria, and intermittent patches of minimalism throughout the work, which Muhly’s mentor, Philip Glass, prefers to call "repetitively structured" music.

The Met gave us an excellent cast. Mezzo-soprano, Alice Coote, who made a moving Anne Strawson, Paul Appleby, a youthful 30 year old tenor, whose acting and singing were convincing as 16 year old Brian, and Andrew Pulver, an 11 year old boy soprano, coolly in command of his role as Jake. Their supporting cast was equally memorable.

Nico Muhly has written a potentially haunting opera — yet one that does not haunt enough — that neither seeks, nor achieves a climax, and whose passionless protagonists accede too easily to death and loss and pain.

One wonders whether Muhly or librettist Craig Lucas knew their characters well enough to understand the powerful emotions that drove two children to suicide and murder, and trapped a young police woman responsible for the care of a nagging mother without any visible disabilities, into a life of sexual and emotional repression.

Nevertheless, Two Boys gives reason to believe that Nico Muhly’s next opera — it has already been commissioned by the Met — will haunt viewers long after its last curtain drops.

And yes, however the Met did it, the audience at the opera’s second performance, which I attended, was young, hip and enthusiastic, particularly when the beaming composer appeared to acknowledge its cheers.

Estelle Gilson


Cast and production information:

Brian: Paul Appleby; Anne Strawson:Alice Coote; Cynthia, Jake’s mother: Caitlin Lynch; Rebecca: Jennifer Zetlan; Brian’s mother: Maria Zifchak; 13 year old Jake: Andrew Pulver; Anne’s Mum: Judith Forst; Fiona: Sandra Piques Eddy; Jake: Christopher Bolduc; Peter: Keith Miller. Conductor: David Richardson. Production: Bartlett Sher. Set Designer: Michael Yeargan. Costume Designer: Catherine Zuber. Lighting Designer: Donald Holder. Animation: 59 Productions. Choreographer: Hofesh Shechter.