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MUHLY: Two Boys

spacer Zetlan, Coote, Eddy, Zifchak; Pulver, Appleby, Pfortmiller, Miller; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Robertson. English text. Nonesuch 7559-79560-2 (2)

TwoBoysCD

Nico Muhly’s Two Boys, which had its world premiere at ENO in 2011 and its Met debut in October 2013, is the first fruit of the Met–Lincoln Center Theater New Works Program. The Met cast is featured on a double CD set, courtesy of Nonesuch. In the past, several of Muhly’s smaller-scale pieces have sounded like the work of a gifted pastiche artist who has an impressively wide range of influences but hasn’t quite synthesized them into his own voice. Two Boys, however, with an absorbing libretto by Craig Lucas, is convincing in its originality and brashly stakes its claim as a work worthy of a Met commission. Based on the true story of a murder in England that began with the online meeting of two teenage boys, the opera harks back to an era early in the Internet’s history (c. 2001) when online chatrooms first proliferated. Muhly introduces us to this world with a multilayered vocal soundscape of repeating fragments (“u there? … who is this?”) — John Adams-style textures meant to represent the virtual buzzing of vast interconnected networks. Though somewhat derivative, it’s certainly a skillful application of minimalist musical vocabulary to illuminate a specific scenario. Happily, Muhly unleashes his imagination in subsequent online excursions: when Brian, the older of the two boys, visits more threatening and lurid Internet sites, the orchestra becomes wild, swirling and thrashing. At the end, when all the principal voices — both real and virtual — return for a final lament, the wailing choral layering sounds entirely original. With a passacaglia bass booming portentously, it’s a well-earned, emotionally potent finale that ends with just two quietly sustained voices.

Muhly is also well-versed in the musical language of film noir, and Lucas obligingly unveils his mystery-thriller plot with cinematic crosscuts and flashbacks. Muhly creates his moody, descriptive backgrounds with skillful and imaginative orchestrations that occasionally imply electronic textures but are in fact entirely acoustic. While many contemporary operas meander in their settings of prose librettos, Muhly’s recitatives are melodically well-shaped. He also knows enough to get out of the way when the text is driving the plot forward. Elsewhere, he takes a firm lead: the score provides pulse and urgency as the vapid online getting-to-know-you flirtations evolve simultaneously toward the promise of sex and the threat of violence; in church, Andrew Pulver’s pristine boy-soprano voice soars above the rest of the church choir and captivates Brian, to the consternation of his parents; and the last online conversation between Brian and Rebecca, his alluring chat partner, escalates ferociously until it seemingly ends with her murder.

The cast is superb, and nearly all of them are adept at the potentially hazardous task of credibly delivering vernacular text in the language of classical music (albeit the contemporary variety). Alice Coote, as Anne Strawson, the detective investigating the stabbing, delivers a mournful centerpiece aria about what she sees as the vapidity of youth culture, and the ache in her focused, well-produced mezzo creates a suspended moment in time. As a counterweight to Coote’s lament, Paul Appleby, as Brian, provides his take on the insidious appeal of the Internet, in which he is tender, pleading, sincere and defiant, all the way up to a vibrant, unstrained B-flat. As Rebecca, Jennifer Zetlan manages to infuse a girl-next-door sweetness into her blooming, well-supported soprano voice. Zetlan can make a line like “want 2 go private?” sound both pure and suggestive. As Fiona, the government agent who confronts Brian online and tells him he needs to kill thirteen-year-old Jake, Sandra Piques Eddy is authoritative and intimidating, although the part is not so well differentiated musically as it might be. Keith Miller’s villainously pulsing bass-baritone drives the threatening appearance of the ostensibly murderous Peter the gardener. Pulver, appearing in Brian’s bedroom as Jake immediately after Miller’s leering rant, provides a wondrously soothing contrast. Maria Zifchak and Kyle Pfortmiller create fully-fleshed characters as Brian’s disbelieving parents. The Met Orchestra, not generally used to playing new works in the opera house, sounds gleaming and immaculate under the expert leadership of David Robertson. spacer 

JOSHUA ROSENBLUM

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