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On the Internet, Nobody Knows You’re a Youngster With Issues

by Zachary Woolfe, The New York Times.

LONDON — The Internet is a vast repository of music, but has it created any of note? The speak-singing of “You’ve got mail”? The jangle of an instant message? They don’t really cut it as art.

Enter the young composer Nico Muhly’s opera “Two Boys,” which had its world premiere at the English National Opera here last week in advance of its arrival at the Metropolitan Opera, which commissioned it, during the 2013-14 season.

Here, finally, is not merely the music on the Internet, but the music of the Internet: a babble of overlapping fragments, texting as supertitles — “hey,” “i thought i lost u,” “r u there?”— that’s gorgeous and frustrating, transparent and impenetrable. It may just be a chorus singing it on a stage, each member’s face illuminated by his or her own laptop. But it’s also a vision of what our immense social networks might sound like if we could get outside of them and listen.

On Wednesday, at the third performance of the production, directed by Bartlett Sher, it was clear that Mr. Muhly, at 29, writing his first full-length opera, has done just that: been inside and outside, both an active participant in our culture and a detached observer of it. It is the delicate balance of every great piece of art, and “Two Boys” is Mr. Muhly’s best work yet.

Based on events that occurred in Manchester, England, in 2003, the opera’s libretto, by the playwright Craig Lucas, has the propulsion of a police procedural. The obligatory seen-it-all officer is Detective Inspector Anne Strawson, who is investigating an attempted murder: a teenager has stabbed a slightly younger boy.

In the course of her investigation, it becomes clear that things are — cue the “Law & Order” deadbolt clang — more complicated than they seemed. The credulous, well-meaning older boy, Brian, says he committed the assault under orders from shadowy figures with whom he would chat on the Internet.

Strangely enough, he is telling the truth, but it is gradually revealed that the whole thing has actually been orchestrated by the younger boy, Jake, who played the entire cast of goading characters, seducing and maddening Brian to incite his own murder. Jake wanted, it seems, the same things people have always wanted from the Internet: sexual excitement, a cure for loneliness, to experiment with different personalities. “To be loved,” the chorus adds at the end. “To be remembered.”

Without using electronic instruments, Mr. Muhly has created a world immersed in technology; his sound palette is Britten, not “Tron.” There are softly chiming gongs and ethereal winds, lyrical and sinuous strings and sympathetic, Romantic orchestral surges. The second act starts with an eerie, suspended calm punctured by string flourishes that develop into something almost folksy. There are foreboding minor-key arpeggios throughout, but Mr. Muhly ventures far beyond stock Minimalism. He even creates a new setting for part of the Anglican service; the sound of church music, dense yet floating, permeates the opera.

Indeed, the choral writing is the work’s most successful element. Touches of old-fashioned ornamentation have been added to Strawson’s straightforward lines to emphasize how technologically primitive she is. (“What’s a server?” she asks at one point.) Brian is given to excited exhortations.

But the solo lines in general blend together, highlighting the cipherish aspect of the opera’s characterizations. Strawson is stereotypically hard-bitten and secretly lonely; Brian is resolutely, utterly ordinary. The plot unfolds, but no one really learns anything or changes. Despite a committed cast (with standout performances by Susan Bickley as Strawson and Nicky Spence as Brian), it is the plot that sweeps us forward, not the characters. The opera’s resistance to neat, redemptive arcs is brave, but something is missing. We know the fact of Jake’s desperate loneliness, for instance, but we never feel its, or his, individuality.

This is partly a result of Mr. Sher’s efficient but faceless production. The scenes shift with cinematic ease: a conversation that begins in Brian’s bedroom might end seamlessly in Strawson’s office.

The projections on the looming walls, which help create spaces both real and abstract, are sometimes thrilling, with heart-pounding use of the “footage” from the crime scene. But the choral interludes are illustrated by images out of an AT&T commercial, networks of light forming and disintegrating. Giant blowups of computer printouts blur and recede risibly during Strawson’s detective work. And Mr. Sher has those stylized projections awkwardly share space with realistic furniture that actors are continually required to move.

Mr. Sher’s production is at its weakest in one of the opera’s crucial scenes, in which Jake arrives in Brian’s bedroom to proposition him. The blocking is dull and uncertain, with much of the action obscured by a desk. Since the scene’s complex mix of emotions — disgust, shame, love — motivates the climax of the opera, our lack of a clear sense of what has happened lessens the work’s eventual impact and our sense of these characters as people.

That so much emotion remains is largely because of Mr. Muhly, whose music is suffused with feeling and free of moral judgments. It is odd that the English National Opera has billed “Two Boys” as a “cautionary tale” about the Internet, when the opera represents online life more ambiguously, as a space of utter possibility, and Jake’s plot as a creative act. He plans to die, hoping that “everyone will say what a beautiful voice I had.”

That is the wish of any artist. In his program biography Mr. Muhly describes himself as “a former boy chorister”; it can’t be coincidence that Jake, too, is a choirboy and, like Mr. Muhly, a prodigy who loves to interact on his computer. Jake’s mother could be referring to Mr. Muhly when she describes her son: “He’s more grown-up than anyone I know.”

The opera derives much of its power from this intensely personal quality. “Two Boys” has much to do with being an artist — an individual — and the way society makes it possible (and impossible) to create, showing the disturbing roads creativity can travel. Its characters could perhaps be more vividly drawn, its production clearer, but it richly fulfills the promise of opera: an entertainment of ideas. For once, you leave the theater talking not about whether the soprano has hit her high notes but about a work’s themes, its relevance to our lives.

Serious and radiant, “Two Boys” is a landmark in the career of an important artist. Confidently staking his claim to the operatic tradition, Mr. Muhly has added to it a work of dark beauty.

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