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Two Boys – review

by Andrew Clements, The Guardian.

Nico Muhly’s first opera may have its origins in a true story from Manchester in 2003, but, as presented in Craig Lucas’s libretto, Two Boys seems far removed from any kind of hard-edged reality.

Commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera in New York, but being trialled by English National Opera, the opera unfolds the whole rather pathetic tale in flashback, through the eyes and ears of Anne Strawson, the whisky-drinking detective investigating the case of Brian, aged 16, accused of stabbing Jake, aged 13. To find the causes of this seemingly inexplicable crime Strawson has to immerse herself in the world of chatrooms and internet role play, and then separate fact from fantasy in the story that Brian tells her.

If all that sounds like a plot from a run-of-the-mill British TV detective series with a female protagonist (Lynda La Plante’s Prime Suspect perhaps), then that is unfortunately what all too much of the opera seems to be, with the rather leaden text sung rather than spoken, and Muhly’s music provdiing the tasteful backdrop. The first of two acts unfolds as a frieze-like series of short stories, with little overall dramatic shape or focus; in the second, the pace may be a bit more urgent, but very little more convincing: always more documentary rather than drama, and a bland mid-Atlantic compromise at that.

Musically it unfolds far too sedately, with vocal declamation over smoothly contoured orchestral ostinatos, pitched somewhere between recent Philip Glass and the John Adams of The Death of Klinghoffer, as the default musical idiom. Just occasionally the music reveals what might have been – in the aleatoric choral writing depicting the cyber-babble of the chatrooms, the multi-layered chorus with which the work ends, or some of the wonderfully voiced orchestral textures, such as the poignant string lines that underpin the aria in which Brian attempts to describe the importance of the internet in his life. But balance between pit and stage is a regular problem, and too many vocal lines get swamped by the orchestral textures.

That’s when the Muhly one recognises from his previous orchestral and vocal works snaps into focus; but they are fleeting moments in what is, alas, a plodding and amorphous work. There is two hours of music, but it seems far longer, mostly because none of the characters – not Susan Bickley’s overworked Strawson, Nicky Spence’s rather two-dimensional Brian, or Jonathan McGovern’s Jake, let alone the sketched-in gallery of smaller roles – is given enough the dramatic presence to engage any sympathy.

Rumon Gamba’s conducting is as efficiently functional as Bartlett Sher’s production, in which video projections (computer graphics, cctv footage, chatroom exchanges) by 59 Productions provides most of the visual interest. There’s nothing really arresting, though, nothing to lift the general sense of disappointment that pervades the whole evening.

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