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Two Boys: A compelling opera for our time inspired by real-life internet crime

by David Gillard, The Daily Mail.

A few months ago it was the Royal Opera who were ruffling musical feathers with their wonderfully outrageous assessment of modern mores and contemporary malaise as seen through the bizarre life of Anna Nicole Smith.

Now it’s the English National Opera’s turn, with a dark and undoubtedly controversial probe into the cyberworld and the murkier depths of the internet.
And, after the recent much-publicised arrest of a reclusive Essex teenager accused of hacking into Government websites, there is an eerie prescience about this extraordinary world premiere.

The young American composer Nico Muhly’s complex and often compelling new opera was inspired by a real-life internet crime in Manchester, where two boys were convicted of attempted murder and incitement to murder after the discovery of an elaborate series of chatroom dialogues.
Muhly’s opera – with a subtly idiomatic libretto by playwright and screenwriter Craig Lucas – chillingly follows a woman detective’s investigation after a teenage boy is stabbed.
Is it attempted murder – or a weird internet pact? Agatha Christie it ain’t. ENO had warned that the work was unsuitable for under-16s, containing scenes of graphic sex and language that might offend.

Well, yes, there’s a fair amount of sexual content, including scenes of masturbation. But it’s never gratuitous and always dramatically credible.
Perhaps the real shock (for this internet-innocent, at least) is the insidious lure of the virtual world — a realm of fantasy, duplicity and obsession.
Director Bartlett Sher’s assured staging — a co-production with New York’s Met — claustrophobically captures this geeky, multi-faceted cyberworld with minimalist sets and brilliant video projections.

But the real revelation of the evening is Muhly’s score. It’s his first opera, and the vocal and orchestral writing is rich and accessible.
There are certainly hints of his mentor, Philip Glass, but the choral interludes are strangely reminiscent of Benjamin Britten.

It’s persuasively played under conductor Rumon Gamba, and a fine cast is led convincingly by Susan Bickley’s bemused detective and Nicky Spence as the teenage suspect, Brian.
The evening sometimes — perhaps inevitably — seems a little static. But it’s undoubtedly an opera for our time. I shall be reading my e-mails rather more closely in future.

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