Two Boys

The chorus in Nico Muhly’s opera 
Two Boys. Photograph: Richard Hubert-Smith/English National Opera.

Two Boys

Nico Muhly's opera delves into the dark side of the internet, but the subject matter longs for riskier, less guarded treatment, writes Dónal Sarsfield.

English National Opera: Two Boys

London Coliseum, London
6 July 2011 

Opera has been illuminating and absorbing real-life stories and real-life people for centuries, but it has always been the responsibility of the librettist and composer to do more than opera-fy a sad or bizarre tale. In an art form where spectacle and non-naturalism are not only welcomed but expected, a novel subject matter will only go so far. Two Boys, the debut opera from Nico Muhly, makes use of a remarkable story but it feels no more than a device to place the dark side of the internet at the centre of the operatic stage.

The two boys are Jake and Brian. Brian manipulates Jake into staging his own killing over the internet. And then there is the detective, who has to make sense of this unfamiliar online reality. The opera unfolds gradually, moving between the detective’s interrogations and the re-telling of the events as they happened. The action smoothes between online chatrooms (with transcripts visualised on two large panels by 59 Productions), police detective interrogations, and the bedroom (where Brian spends most of his time hunched over his computer). Flocking, bird-like visuals and reconstructed CCTV footage occasionally flood the stage to great effect.

The conversational tone of Craig Lucas’ libretto — ‘Do you even know what the internet is?’ and ‘OMG!’ — absorbs the vernacular of the chat-room quite naturally. The detective provides an ingenious foil to the boys’ online relationship, but much as the drama tries to play up the gulf between analogue and digital worlds — ‘What’s a server?’ — the detective character fails to extend (either dramatically or musically) beyond her role as the moral office worker.

And, although the music is consistently lush, it’s firmly glued down by the conversational vocal writing, which it must always support (Muhly respects the comprehension of the sung text as sacred). When the music does eventually break free, either in the distinctive choral interludes, or in a chat-room scene where the preying gardener tries to lure Brian, the writing sounds uncomfortable in its new surroundings and quickly returns to safer, sustained, pretty string chords.

There are, however, fleeting moments of genuine friction between drama and music. In the second act when Jake (played by boy soprano Joseph Beesley with a well controlled naïvety), is specifying how he wishes to be killed, the unaffected purity of his voice works wonderfully against his blatant and calculated manipulation of the more bombastic Brian (sung by the assured young tenor Nicky Spence). But such moments are rare and too often Muhly reproduces the narrative of the drama through the music, instead of using music’s emotional persuasiveness to convince us why these characters needed to burst into song in the first place.

Published on 15 August 2011

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