Nico Muhly’s “Two Boys” at the Metropolitan Opera in New York

This afternoon I attended a performance of Nico Muhly’s opera, “Two Boys,” presented by the Metropolitan Opera in New York.  There are a few more performances left in the run.  Anybody interested in seeing and hearing a new direction in opera for the 21st century who has not already gotten a ticket should move fast!

I’ve been a fan of Muhly since a profile by Alex Ross in The New Yorker brought him to my attention several years ago and led me to seek out recordings of his music.  (It is also worthy checking out his website/blog for an idea of what he is all about and to hear sound clips of his music.)  Muhly was recruited for the Met’s new initiative to commission American operas when he was 25 (he’s now 32), and his is the first of several commissioned operas to actually make it through the workshop and out-of-town tryout (English National Opera) and be presented on the big stage at Lincoln Center.  (Rufus Wainwright’s effort, rejected reportedly over his insistence of setting it in French, was presented by NY City Opera to moderate acclaim.  I enjoyed it without thinking it was great or even particularly distinctive.)

Muhly was teamed by the Met with writer Craig Lucas, author of numerous successful plays and screenplays and one Broadway-style musical.  Lucas is thirty years older than Muhly and an experienced man of the theater, and the Met powers-that-be thought such experience would be useful to a young composer setting off to write his first full-length opera.  By the end of the performance today, I was convinced that they made a mistake by not matching Muhly with somebody who has written several opera libretti.  Opera is distinctively different from all of the forms in which Lucas has worked, and I thought that the libretto was a weak point of this production.  But then again, it may be that Lucas’s fresh perspective helped to make this opera so distinctively different from most contemporary operas that I’ve heard.

The piece is through-composed with no stand-alone or attached arias.  Indeed, there is precious little song to this, just a few snippets here and there.  No tunes to go out humming.  This is a dark tale of deceit and murder involving the internet, and Muhly’s music is correspondingly grim throughout.  A few mild laughs — more like nervous laughs — from the audience in the second act were the only breaks to the gloom.  The piece was engrossing anyway.  The music functioned more like an excellent movie soundtrack, and the singing seemed to me somewhere between operatic recitative and the speech-song (Sprechtgesang) favored by Arnold Schoenberg in Pierrot Lunaire, his extended piece for singer and chamber ensemble where pitches are suggested as approximations and the singer is cautioned NOT TO SING!.  Muhly’s characters sing a bit, but not an awful lot.  On the other hand, what they do seems very well integrated into the plot.

But I found myself thinking toward the end that this might have been more effective as a theater piece with extensive music rather than an opera.  Performed in a theatrical house, not a huge opera house, and with perhaps more spoken dialogue to help the audience figure out what was going on.  (I read the synopsis in the program twice before coming to the Met, and still found myself befuddled at times, even with the English surtitles exhibited on the seatbacks.)

But befuddlement comes with the territory of this story, whose preoccupation is with the way that the internet facilitates anonymous and shifting identities among those who use it to carry out their social games.  The plot, said to derive from an actual incident, centers on a precocious 13-year-old who appropriates the names and identities of various members of his family to create multiple identities on-line, and then uses the various identities to seduce an older boy (16) into collaborating on the 13-year-old’s suicide, staged to appear as a murder.  There’s a plot-spoiler for you, but of course the plot is spelled out in the synopsis in the program book, but not with this degree of clarity.

The performance and production is extraordinary.  David Robertson is an excellent conductor of contemporary music, the Met Orchestra rises to the occasion, and director Bartlett Sher has created a production worth traveling to see.  The melding of moving sets, projections and other special effects work seamlessly to move the story forward and create an aura of suspense.  The Met chorus — standing in for a memorable depiction of the effect of internet chatrooms with simultaneous conversations going on – was also its excellent self.  Mezzo-soprano Alice Coote as the police detective assigned to unravel the mystery of the stabbing of Jake is center stage most of the time and carries the burden with thrilling aplomb. Paul Appleby was also excellent as Brian, the older boy who is caught in the internet web.   The entire cast is strong and memorable, but I would give special kudos to Andrew Pulver, a boy soprano whose assumption of important parts of the role of Jake (otherwise sung at times, a bit confusingly in terms of the dramatic continuity, by Christopher Bolduc) was quite memorable.  He was asked to do more sophisticated acting than children usually have to do on the stage of the Met, and he did it quite well.

This is the kind of work that I think would benefit from a second or third exposure, and I hope the Met is going to stand behind its commissioning efforts by bringing the piece back for another run soon.  And I hope Muhly will continue to think about ways to improve it in the event of another run or a performance elsewhere when the Met’s exclusive rights expire, because I’m sure he will continue to find ways to strengthen the piece.  Nothing need be cast in stone.  (After all, Puccini substantially reworked Madama Butterfly after the initial production, and the version of Carmen we see today is different from what was presented at the Paris Opera for the premiere. . .)

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