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English National Opera/The Metropolitan Opera: Two Boys

by Barry Millington, London Evening Standard.

A teenage stabbing, internet chatrooms and cybersexual predators: Nico Muhly’s Two Boys has all the ingredients of social malaise that promise to make a copybook opera for our times.

For those who believe opera should engage with contemporary issues, Muhly’s work, to a libretto by Craig Lucas, ticks most of the boxes.

Loosely based on a true story, Two Boys is about a 14-year-old computer geek, Jake, who invents a virtual world inhabited by entirely convincing international spies and murderers. It’s all part of a fantasy to draw the 15-year-old Brian, with whom he is infatuated, into his orbit; ultimately he persuades Brian to attempt to kill him.

That’s where the opera starts and the preceding events are unravelled by a female detective, Anne Strawson, who bears a generic resemblance to Sarah Lund of The Killing. Lucas’s intricate plotting is neatly done, weaving together past and present, reality and unreality seamlessly yet lucidly.

The projections and animations by 59 Productions – with striking use of computer- generated graphics – together with Michael Yeargan’s sets for Bartlett Sher’s production, are a tour de force and the twists and turns of the drama are edge-of-seat stuff.

All of which makes it so unfortunate that Muhly’s score isn’t more substantial. It’s eclectic to a fault – John Adams-style driving rhythms, Anglican chant and neo-Romanticism nestle together in almost indecent intimacy – and easy enough on the ear. The orchestration is often imaginative and it’s true that the music harmonises well with the drama in all its multi-faceted fluidity. But too little of it has real identity or force, depriving the experience of the extra dimension great art affords. Ultimately it all seemed as transient as, well, a chatroom conversation.

Susan Bickley ably explores the tensions underlying the creation of Anne Strawson. Nicky Spence is fresh-voiced as Brian, betraying alike his somewhat gullible parents and himself with his lapses of conscience. Mary Bevan and Joseph Beesley make fine contributions as Rebecca and Jake. Rumon Gamba is the accomplished conductor.

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