by William Hartston, Express.
Having worked in film, pop and classical music, Muhly is one of the most versatile and exciting talents in music today, which is why he was chosen by the English National Opera and New York’s Metropolitan Opera House to collaborate with the writer Craig Lucas on this work which had its world premiere in London on June 24.
With most of the action taking place in cyberspace, it is a thoroughly modern opera, both disturbing and challenging.
The plot could have come straight from one of the Prime Suspect TV dramas, with a very Helen Mirren-like detective investigating the stabbing of a young teenager.
The victim had been conducting an online relationship with an older boy, with their chat having elements of sex, spies and violence, and most of the onstage action is a recreation of their talk, against a projected background of cyberbabble that captures both the inanity and sometimes threatening nature of the worst FaceBook and similar social networks have to offer.
Very rare for an opera, Two Boys actually has a plot that makes you eager to know what happens next. The crucial moment in the detective’s investigation comes very cleverly when she is talking to her aged Mum on the subject of clothes and make-up, and her Mum tells her that we try to present ourselves in a way that other people want.
Detective inspector Anne Strawson, very convincingly sung and acted by Susan Bickley, suddenly realises the true nature of the fantasy lives that the Internet permits, and everything begins to fit together.
For once, the programme of the opera includes no detailed plot synopsis in order not to give anything away. I feel bound to follow their lead on that matter. The story, though, is said to be based loosely on a real-life incident, and its unravelling is quite shocking.
In the role of Brian, the main suspect, Nicky Spence gives a fine performance as an intense, insecure teenager. While Mary Bevan, Jonathan McGovern and Joseph Beesley give excellent support as his Internet ‘friends’. The music, as one would expect from Muhly, is definitely not of a singalong variety, but provides powerful and emotional audio background for the disturbing storyline. Michael Yeargan’s gloomy sets and Bartlett Sher’s direction complete a thoroughly successful production.
The English National Opera has vigorously pursued a policy of commissioning new operas and new productions of old ones. Sometimes this has been distinctly less than successful, but when it works as powerfully as in Muhly’s new work, the result can be astounding.