MUHLY Two Boys
A number of contemporary operas have embraced the 21st century by taking recent historical events as their starting point. American composer Nico Muhly’s first full-scale work in this genre also draws from the recent past; but instead of engaging with political events or tracing a celebrity’s self-destruction, Two Boys explores the lurid and seedy underbelly of chat rooms, webcams and internet scams.
Muhly’s opera revolves around the attempted murder of Jake, a 12-year-old boy who has been stabbed in the dark corner of a shopping mall. The only other person found at the scene of the crime is the ‘second’ of the two boys, 16-year-old Brian. Detective Anne Strawson is called upon to investigate but Brian strenuously denies any wrongdoing during cross-examination. However, the more Strawson probes into the life of Brian, Jake, Jake’s sister Rebecca, their shifty aunt Fiona, who works for the secret service, and the even shiftier gardener, Peter, the more she gets drawn into a complex and sinister tale of internet intrigue and deceit. On one level, Two Boys is a tale about the potentially inimical effects of internet use and abuse, but it is also an opera about the way in which social media has created a disoriented and disconnected generation, strangely dispossessed of compassionate thoughts and moral principles.
ENO’s premiere in June 2011 elicited something of a mixed response. The choral sections appeared disconnected from the main thrust of the story and a subplot focusing on Strawson’s relationship with her ageing mother – while providing light relief from the murder investigation itself – added little by way of dramatic depth.
Operas should not be judged according to first impressions, however, and Two Boys certainly gains from further listening. The best moments in Act 1 feature powerful duets between Rebecca (brilliantly characterised by Jennifer Zetlan) and Brian (Paul Appleby), or between Anne (Alice Coote, also excellent) and Brian, often punctuated by nervous ostinatos, pulsing polymetric rhythms and crunchy polytonal chords in the orchestra. The sound world of composers such as Glass, Adams and Andriessen is never far away but Muhly has harnessed these influences to his own ends, crafting a distinctive post-minimal style. Even those choral sections which seemed unsteady and insecure at the premiere are communicated here with far more presence, purpose and precision.
Muhly’s technique of layering and superimposing lines against each other acts as a particularly powerful musical metaphor for the dark web and its never-ending babble of disembodied voices, as exposed most tellingly in the opera’s dystopian ending. The recording, taken from the Metropolitan Opera’s performances in October and November 2013, is not without its flaws, with quite a bit of ambient overspill coming from the stage during certain scene changes, but Two Boys is certainly worth a second (or even third) visit.