Muhly’s dark, haunting “Two Boys” offers a chilling parable for the internet age
“Everything is ironic,” says Alice Coote as detective Anne Strawson about the dangerous online world into which she has been forced to descend. “They’ve killed off beauty. There’s no tenderness. There’s nothing.”
Nico Muhly’s Two Boys opened Monday night at the Metropolitan Opera in its highly anticipated U.S. premiere, following the opera’s 2011 debut at English National Opera.
With a visually stunning production, raw yet eloquent libretto by Craig Lucas and a compelling score by Nico Muhly, Monday’s opening-night performance proved a triumph almost across the board. The first fruit of the Met’s New Works Program in concert with the Lincoln Center Theater, Two Boys bodes well for future efforts by this important partnership.
On the surface, the scenario is an English crime mystery with a contemporary twist. British detective inspector Anne Strawson is investigating the violent stabbing of a 13-year-old boy, Jake, that has left him in a coma. The main suspect is Jake’s friend Brian, 16, who he met in an internet chat room. Strawson, doesn’t even own a computer, and as she attempts to prove Brian’s guilt, she finds a grim, coarse and shadowy world of sex, conspiracy, and murder, where one can never be entirely sure what is reality and what is online fantasy. As she descends deeper into this unsettling world, she is beset by professional doubt and conflicted about the fact that she gave up her own son for adoption to concentrate on advancing her career.
The taut, crackling libretto by Lucas explores several timely themes beneath the surface scenario, including social alienation and how a search for love can insidiously morph into a desperate pursuit of sex.
Though hard-edged and unsentimental, with a graphic sexuality that is uncomfortable at times, Two Boys also is a work of great compassion and a cautionary tale of how the internet and the electronic devices that have become an inseparable part of our daily lives can destroy our souls. The ceremony of innocence is drowned digitally—luring us away from our families and loved ones, into an inviting alternate reality where one can become easily unmoored from morality in a swirling netherworld of sexual enticement and intrigue.
As relevant as the themes are, it is Nico Muhly’s music that makes Two Boys a success. The score for this concise opera (2:10 including intermission) is unabashedly tonal yet with a pulsing edgy momentum. Orchestrated with a dark iridescent palette, the tense, insistent counterpoint showcases Muhly’s versatility, the music having a gaunt grandeur, and at times a soaring lyricism, allied to its gritty scenario.
Watching two people type a conversation in a chat room would seem a numbing stage visual but resourceful direction by the brilliant Bartlett Sher has made the potential pitfalls into an eye-popping tour de force. As Paul types his conversations, the personages waft on and off stage as the melismatic lines unroll on two huge vintage chat-room screens, circa 2001. The online projections and animated wizardry are fluidly realized by 59 Productions. Michael Yeargan’s minimalist gray-green sets paint the drab police department and bourgeois homes with light yet pointed scenic strokes.
Perhaps most striking is the design for one of the chorus scenes, with solitary figures illuminated by their computer screens arrayed in two irregular, apartment-like towers—an apt visual metaphor for the isolation and loneliness that modern technology engenders even as it seduces with the ease and convenience of 24-hour communication.
The action is set in 2001, and there is no mistaking the broader implications of social and psychic dislocation, with the grid-like towers and the dissolution of the lines in the final tableau invested with an uncomfortable resonance in New York City.
The large cast was without a weak link. Alice Coote sang Muhly’s conversational, melismatic lines with sensitivity and crystalline clarity, her lovely mezzo voice soaring in the aria at the end of Act I and the closing ensemble. Dramatically, Coote skillfully underplayed the detective inspector, bringing out the character’s conflicted concern for her frail mother and the son she had given up for adoption, with touching restraint.
Paul Appleby delivered a career-making performance as Brian. The former Met Lindemann Young Artist was nearly believable as the modern plugged-in teen Everyman, alienated from his parents and society, and finding an alternate life on the internet, which leads to his decline and destruction. Appleby sang with a vital, aptly youthful tenor, and brought unbridled intensity to the immature character, who goes looking for friends and sexual hijinks online and winds up drawn into horrific tragedy.
The strange myriad of characters who populate Jake’s online conspiracy were incisively etched, aided by Catherine Zuber’s dead-on costuming. As Rebecca, the seductive teen girl who lures Brian into the online maze, Jennifer Zetlan displayed a bright, girlish soprano. Christopher Bolduc vocalized with a plangent baritone as Brian’s idealized version of Jake. Sandra Piques Eddy proved alluring and mysterious as the spy Fiona, and Keith Miller was unsettling as the brutish Peter.
The most courageous performance of the evening was given by the young Andrew Pulver. The 11-year-old sang with a pure, angelic soprano in the church scene with the chorus and showed acting talent in some demanding—and, frankly, hard to watch—scenes of sexuality and violence in Act 2.
As Anne’s elderly mother, the veteran Judith Forst etched a superb cameo, as did Dennis Petersen as Liam, Anne’s cynical, exasperated boss. Caitlin Lynch was touching as Jake’s mother, with Maria Zifchak and Kyle Pfortmiller on target as Brian’s clueless middle-class parents.
The playing of the Met Orchestra under the attentive direction of David Robertson was first class, lucid and transparent, with Robertson bringing out the dark pulsing undertow and giving lyrical moments sure impact while keeping the music in scale.
The production’s only significant miscalculation was including dancers to accompany the choruses, a visual that seemed wildly out of place in such a naturalistic, starkly linear work. The conceit is made worse by Hofesh Shechter’s execrable choreography, with the undulating arm-waving ensemble recalling the Solid Gold dancers.
That lapse apart, Nico Muhly’s Two Boys is a triumph, a dark, downbeat yet ultimately compassionate work with a rich and often beautiful score. Kudos to the Met for nurturing and bringing this rich and compelling new opera to life.
Two Boys runs through November 14. metoperafamily.org