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Muhly’s “Two Boys” debuts at ENO

by William Robin, The Washington Post.

LONDON: Based on a true story: A teenager stabs a younger boy outside a shopping mall in an English suburb. A lonely detective unravels a series of fake identities and Internet intrigues, gradually obsessing more and more over the case. The latest HBO crime drama? CSI: Manchester? Not quite. It’s the young composer Nico Muhly’s first opera, “Two Boys,” the highly-anticipated Metropolitan Opera commission which premiered at the English National Opera here on Friday night.

“Two Boys” is perhaps the first operatic police procedural, in which dramatic events unfold in a series of interrogations and flashbacks. The New York-based Muhly is equally fluent in the TV tropes of “Law and Order” and the musical tropes of Benjamin Britten, and “Two Boys” is a grand homage to both. Though the opera focuses on the unsettling danger of the Internet, it has less to do with Twitter sex scandals than the nuances of deeply troubling personal relationships — more Britten’s Peter Grimes than Anthony Weiner.

The opera opens with the detective, Anne, puzzling over the bizarre attempted murder. As she interviews Brian, the culprit, she discovers a complicated game of online theatrics: Jake, Brian’s victim, created multiple identities in order to trick the other teen into cybersex and eventually the violent attack.

As Anne becomes more involved with the solving of the crime, she neglects her personal life (already a mess), treating the online world more seriously and even beginning to believe that some truth might underlie Jake’s masquerade. Playwright Craig Lucas’s libretto deftly conveys the nuances of language in instant messaging and real-world conversation.

“Two Boys” dragged towards the beginning but quickly picked up steam, and Muhly’s talents were fully evident by the first entrance of the ENO’s enchanting chorus. In several choral numbers, easily the best parts of the opera, Muhly transformed the unrelenting buzz of the Internet into a kind of ecstatic glossolalia, in which hundreds of words are layered atop each other to create a tableau of chanted gibberish (a technique already known to anyone familiar with the composer’s album Mothertongue). The chorus basked in the glimmer of laptop screens as projections by the team 59 Productions superimposed swirling visual representations of the Web onto the otherwise stark set.

Muhly composed several tender, brief, solo arias for the principal characters, and engaging dialogues both online and off. Though his music suggests the throbbing postminimalism of John Adams, his most clear influences come from this side of the pond — the English choral tradition of Herbert Howells (evoked in a somewhat out-of-place church scene) and the operas of Britten. “Two Boys” teems with references to Britten, from the pealing gamelan-style gongs of “Death in Venice” to the finale, an ornate passacaglia straight out of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Muhly’s score alternates between clear, pulsating lines and submerged menace, though the music sometimes lacks the brutality to match the violence of the subject matter. When the stabbing finally occurrs, it is almost empty of music, missing the inexorable urgency of Verdi or Berg.

But “Two Boys” is an impressive freshman opera and deserves its place at the Met in the 2013-14 season. Bartlett Sher, who has had mixed success transitioning to opera direction, crafted a compelling and well-acted production, sharply contrasting drab reality with the seductive glow of the Internet.

Mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley vividly portrayed Anne and tenor Nicky Spence sang Brian with subtlety; the ethereal boy soprano Joseph Beesley almost stole the show as the real-life Jake. Rumon Gamba conducted Muhly’s score with verve and the ENO orchestra sounded in fine form.

In the final moments of the opera, as Anne finally comprehends Jake’s elaborate mind game, a chorus of anonymous Internet users sings of love and murder over the sound of misty gamelan gongs. Even as it presents the most horrifying extremes to which people can use the Internet, “Two Boys” suggests that there might be logic, and even beauty, behind the chaos of the online world.

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