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Two Boys

The Metropolitan Opera

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A scene from Bartlett Sher's production of Nico Muhly's Two Boys, with projections by 59 Productions
© Beth Bergman 2014
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Appleby and Coote, in Two Boys at the Met
© Beth Bergman 2014
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The Met premiere of Muhly's Two Boys
© Beth Bergman 2014

Nico Muhly's Two Boys, the first piece to reach the Met stage from the Met/Lincoln Center Theater New Works Program, opened in New York on October 21. The music for the opera is clearly the work of an artist of singular gifts: the sound is rich and distinctive, the use of instrumental color masterful and the command of mood sovereign. The choral music, sung with surpassing fervor and flexibility by Donald Palumbo's Met chorus, is stimulating and vibrant at every speed, as are the orchestral sections, paced with finesse by David Robertson. The relationship of the music to the main narrative of the libretto, by American playwright, screenwriter and director Craig Lucas, is far less satisfactory. 

Two Boys, which is a coproduction of the Met and English National Opera, had its world premiere in London in 2011. The opera is the story of the investigation of an attack by one teenage boy on another; the action is set in an English industrial city in 2001 and is dominated by the then-burgeoning world of online chat-rooms. Structured in the manner of a thriller or a police procedural, Two Boys feels less like an opera than an old-fashioned film noir, in which the music comments on the action without moving it forward. Lucas and Muhly are telling the same story, but they seem to be working next to each other, rather than together: every time the plot thickens, as it were, the music takes a back seat to the story, stepping gracefully out of the way as the principal characters engage in conversational interludes that register as interruptions. It doesn't help matters that fresh, original musical ideas are partnered with a storyline that is contrived and imitative, with little real mystery; the audience has all the information it needs to solve the puzzle well before the final curtain. Even more damaging is the structural conceit that the three principal characters — Detective Inspector Anne Strawson and the two boys involved in the attack, Brian and Jake — are stymied by their inability to express themselves; in other words, when the stakes are raised, they can't sing, allowing a disproportionate number of the big vocal moments to go to minor characters. The most persuasive of these were delivered by bass-baritone Keith Miller, as the brutal gardener Peter, and soprano Jennifer Zetlan, as Rebecca, an elusive rich girl.

The show was beautifully cast, and each of the artists at work made the most of the opportunities offered. Tenor Paul Appleby offered clean, urgent singing and acting in the leading role of Brian, the sixteen-year-old boy accused in the attack. Boy soprano Andrew Pulver, as the thirteen-year-old victim, held his own with the adult singers. Alice Coote's extraordinary integrity and clarity gave some much-needed dramatic weight to the underwritten role of Anne Strawson, the detective inspector (and stereotypical lonely single woman) investigating the attack. Anne's aged mother was acted and sung with verve by Judith Forst; Brian's parents were expertly limned by Maria Zifchak and Kyle Pfortmiller.

Bartlett Sher's immaculate production showed evidence of scrupulous preparation on all levels — I cannot remember ever seeing a "medical advisor" listed for a libretto before — and the opening-night performance unfolded with clockwork precision. The sets by Michael Yeargan and the lighting by Donald Holder did an admirable job of opening up a story that essentially exists on computer screens; the versatile Catherine Zuber designed costumes that were characterful and distinctive. The projections and animation — credited to Leo Warner, Mark Grimmer, Nicol Scott and the late Peter Stenhouse, for 59 Productions — were dazzling, with the most impressive sequence the re-creation of Brian's attack on Jake in Act II. spacer


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