Two Boys, ENO

by Sue Loder, Opera Today.

You would have had to be deaf and blind — or perhaps just a very wise monkey — not to have been aware that a young American composer called Nico Muhly was about to open at the English National Opera in London last night with a work called Two Boys.

Since late last year, it seems that the personable and obviously multi-talented Muhly has been (pardon the allusion) pushed down our throats from every media-angle, and by too many London hacks anxious to maintain their street-cred in Twitter-land. This kind of media blitz is obviously a two-edged sledgehammer: if the show bombs then everybody looks somewhat foolish, if it achieves critical and/or box-office success (I suspect the latter in this case) then we’ll probably get bombarded again all too soon with the next wonder-kid of modern music. Ah well.

Mary Bevan

At the world premiere of Two Boys last night, (cleverly being opened here and not at its co-pro alma mater of the Met) you would have been forgiven for thinking that you had missed the date and wandered into London Fashion Week. Everyone who had read all the supplements, all the tweets, all the blogs and listened to the podcasts — or even just came on spec because everyone else said they should — was there. It was achingly hip. Never mind — we all want opera extending its audience so why not? It probably swelled the coffers of the ENO champagne bar.

So how was it? Well, perhaps one should score it in TV Talent Show style and take it from there:
Story: 6/10, Music: 6/10, Production: 6/10…… get the idea I expect. Singers? Definitely 8/10, if only for commitment to the work, vocal characterisation, and damn good acting within the limits of the production.

Craig Lucas has written a libretto that is based on a true news story of some years ago about two boys, internet chat rooms, assumed identities and attempted murder and this story — slight as it is in dramatic terms — worked to a point. What was lacking was any depth of characterisation, any motivations or emotional developments to give the piece structure. Maybe that was part of the plan: certainly the waves of music that swirled and pulsed and counterpointed the long articulated lines of speech/song didn’t suggest much in the way of dramatic development or journey. Muhly’s work is difficult to describe; his music is like high-class mood-music, or perhaps those compositions carefully constructed and “written to picture” for an expensive nature documentary. It doesn’t challenge the listener, nor does it repel — but I doubt it delighted or surprised many either.

Susan Bickley and Nicky Spence

The singers were universally good: the core of the story lies with the investigating police officer played by Susan Bickley (does she ever disappoint?) who has demons of her own to confront as a stranger in the strange land of her suspect’s virtual world of net friends. Her diction was excellent and character well-drawn. That suspect, who we know as “Brian”, is sung by young tenor Nicky Spence with a tremendous empathy for this pathetic, unintelligent, bullied young man who’s flashes of desperate anger at his uncomprehending parents just reinforce his weakness and lack of self esteem.

That excellent work was matched by the amazingly confident performance of boy treble Joseph Beesley — one just hopes that the calculated evil inherent in his character doesn’t leave too much of a shadow. The many supporting roles were equally well presented and sung without a single unhappy choice — and singers and orchestra (under Rumon Gamba) seemed well-rehearsed and remarkably slick considering this was a first night of an entirely new work.

On the production side, a few good ideas were made much of but could have been given more emphasis — the video backdrops of world-wide internet “chatting” — words repeating, and reappearing, and often mirroring the actual sung words. Some of the best dramatic moments came with the chorus spread around and above the stage suggesting the vast numbers of internet chatters communicating endlessly and pointlessly from their sad individual bedrooms. The graphic video work was good — but again could have been so much more; in fact the whole production just felt as if it were treading far too carefully, too “nicely” and was afraid of upsetting anyone. All a bit anodyne, in essence. Perhaps they will push the boat out a bit more for its New York premiere? Somehow, I doubt it.

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