Two Boys at the Met

A young composer premieres an opera at the old Met about how young and old people don’t understand each other. There’s something poignant about it. Your reaction to Nico Muhly’s Two Boys is going to be inflected by your expectations of opera as an art form (or lack thereof), from musical structure to choice of subject to language. I sat, rather perfectly, between a hipster carrying his bike helmet and an older lady carrying a Chanel purse. But that doesn’t mean that all criticism is just a case of Well, You’re Just Listening Wrong. And Two Boys is, in many ways, an unsatisfying work.

Nico Muhly, Two Boys. Metropolitan Opera, 10/25/2013. Production directed by Bartlett Sher, sets by Michael Yeargan, costumes by Catherine Zuber, lights by Donald Holder, projections by 59 Productions, choreography by Hofesh Shechter. Cast: Paul Appleby (Brian), Alice Coote (Anne Strawson),
Christopher Bolduc/Andrew Pulver (Jake as baritone-Jake as boy soprano), Caitlin Lynch (Cynthia), Jennifer Zetlan (Rebecca), Judith Frost (Anne’s mum), Sandra Piques Eddy (Fiona)

As you probably have already heard, the plot of Craig Lucas’s libretto concerns a violent crime in England in 2001 involving the titular two boys. They meet in a shadowy corner of the sketchy sketchy internet, the younger one ends up stabbed, and a detective has to unravel what happened. We see the events as she figures them out, which conveniently happens in chronological order. Brian, the older boy, seems to be drawn into a plot involving a sexy spy, a dangerous gardener, and more. But nothing is, as they say, as it may seems. (We see their online conversations in transcription on projections while the singers  sing them and carefully avoid looking at each other.) A friend’s theory is that the whole thing is a gloss on The Turn of the Screw, which makes a good deal of sense–the characters even match up pretty clearly.

Muhly’s music is ghostly. Repetitive figures in the orchestra are overlaid with lyrical vocal arioso that proceeds at more or less the same tempo for the entire piece. The vocal writing is in basically the same style for every character. The music is often beautiful but it is rarely rhetorical or dramatic, seemingly unaffected by the intent of the scene or words. The most memorable moments are in the choruses depicting the chaos of the internet, whose layering of short motives owes something to John Adams, Britten, and, particularly in the first act’s church scene, Tallis. That church scene might be the best part of the whole score. It’s the first time we hear Jake, the younger boy, singing in a pure boy soprano (in several scenes he is sung by a baritone), and Muhly seems to be in his natural element.

Elsewhere, there seems to be a puzzling mismatch of libretto and music. Muhly’s static score places him squarely in the school of the presentational, post-dramatic opera of Glass and Adams, but the libretto’s Law & Order: SVU plot seems to demand chiaroscuro and tinta of a more directional and narrative sort of composition. (I don’t mean the libretto demands tonal organization–just look at Aribert Reimann.) The disparity of pacing between libretto and music produces a hazy, distancing effect. There’s something interesting about setting the thoughtless, headlong exclamations of hormonal teenagers in slow motion (these kids don’t even take the time to type whole words), but ultimately it only calls more attention to the libretto’s obviousness and implausibility as a crime drama. And much of the music feels rote.

The opera’s reluctance to get into its character’s heads ends up feeling like a dodge, at least to me. At least the singing was universally strong. As Brian, Paul Appleby sang with warm lyric tone and excellent control, and was about as convincing as a teenager as anyone around 30 could ever be, but the scenes with Jake (the unusually reliable boy soprano Andrew Pulver) were unavoidably awkward–I wondered if it would have been better to have worked in Christopher Bolduc’s baritone incarnation of Jake a little more. Jennifer Zetlan sounded youthful and bright as Brian’s older sister, Rebecca. The Met chorus also was in fine form, though my seat in the front of the house (I can rarely say that! thanks, ticket discounts!) did not allow for a good blend. David Robertson’s conducting was excellent.

Coote and Appleby

The only character who seems to be provided with any background is Detective Strawson, the investigator. Alice Coote is an incredibly honest singer and her substantial, dark mezzo was as impeccable as ever, but the writing is thoroughly misogynist: she’s a lonely middle-aged woman who can’t handle dealing with children ever since she gave up a baby years ago, and is hectored at length by her aging mother about her inability to dress like a lady and find a man. (Presumably if she had put on makeup and kept her baby, none of this would have happened, so thanks, Detective Strawson, for being career-minded and dowdy and giving us this opera!)

The setting is in the just-past where we can be very critical because most of us remember it. I recall my 2001 internet–when I was also a teenager–consisting mostly of AOL Instant Messenger with my friends and The Clarinet Pages. I guess it had fewer reputable uses back then, but the opera’s fears of constant connection and absorption seem more contemporary (witness Evgeny Mozorov’s essay in this week’s New Yorker, for example), which makes the more 2001-era elements seem a little hokey. Bartlet Sher’s production is gloomy and for the most part very good and smooth (shockingly so, for him–maybe all he needs is a near-contemporary setting to cure his case of the cutes). The only major misstep is the execrable dancing internet, a group of writhing dancers in the choruses.

Muhly’s opera is admirably less burdened by the sense of worthiness that has plagued many recent efforts at the Met. He doesn’t seem to feel the need to produce a huge national and cultural monument, for one thing. And he has a real compositional voice. But I’m not convinced he’s a dramatic composer, and I wonder if an oratorio or more abstract opera would suit him better than this (and his previous opera Dark Sisters’s) topicality and realism. Maybe he should call Bob Wilson or Peter Sellars?

Two Boys continues through November 14.
Photos copyright Ken Howard/Met

You may also like