Nico Muhly’s Two Boys: A thrilling production at the Metropolitan Opera

The_Metropolitan_Opera_Logo-250wMonday, October 21, 2013 marked the New York premiere of Nico Muhly’s opera Two Boys at the Metropolitan Opera. Two Boys tells the story of Detective Anne Strawson (played by mezzo-soprano Alice Coote) as she tries to uncover the truth surrounding the March 2001 murder of Jake (played by boy soprano Andrew Pulver), a 13-year-old boy from an industrial English city. All signs point to Jake’s 16-year-old friend Brian (played by tenor Paul Appleby) as the murderer. As Detective Strawson questions Brian, he offers her a tale of sex, spies, rape, and murder that seems utterly farfetched. However, Detective Strawson soon discovers that Brian may be telling the truth, and that his story might not be so crazy after all.

Nico Muhly - Photo by Matthew Murphy

Nico Muhly (photo credit: Matthew Murphy)

As audience members filed slowly into the Metropolitan Opera House, they were greeted with video projection on stage of closed-cricuit video footage from a loading dock. Every so often, the projection changed to a different view of the same setting. We later learn that this is the scene of the crime, where Jake was stabbed.
The curtain rises, and the audience finds itself in medias res: Jake is in a coma and Detective Strawson is interrogating Brian, the prime suspect in the case and the only person who was at the scene of the crime. Detective Strawson asks Brian to tell his side of the story, which begins with him recounting his presence in online chat rooms, where he first met Jake’s sister Rebecca. As Brian recalls his first chat with Rebecca, the chorus emerges on stage, early-2000 laptops in hand, singing the words of the web. They form a counterpoint of sung chats, entangled in each other and projected onto the ever-changing set. The chorus returns multiple times throughout the opera, each time representing, in music, the wonders of the web that fascinate Brian.

Paul Appleby as Brian in Nico Muhly's "Two Boys." (photo credit: Micaela Rossato/Metropolitan Opera)

Paul Appleby as Brian in Nico Muhly’s “Two Boys.” (photo credit: Micaela Rossato/Metropolitan Opera)

The first act continues, keeping listeners on the edge of their seat as the plot unfolds. What begins as a 16-year-old murdering at 13-year-old quickly becomes a complex story of an international spy ring, computer hackers, and a missing girl. The thrilling first act ends with Detective Strawson’s realization that perhaps Brian might be telling the truth. This powerful realization was not effectively reflected in the music. Instead, the first act ends on a softer note, with quiet dynamics and light orchestration. As the lights blacked out and the curtain fell, audience members seemed slightly confused about whether or not the first act was indeed at an end.

The second act begins where the first left off, the action now at a much slower pace. While the first act kept listeners engaged and guessing, the second act seems to be just an unfolding of natural outcomes. Five minutes into the second act, it was obvious how the opera would end. It was disappointing to lose the suspense and momentum that had propelled the first act forward. But then the final minutes of the opera were quite strong, the chorus joining the main characters on stage as the pulses in the orchestra swelled to a climax. Silence cut through as the lights went black, the only remaining light coming from Brian’s computer screen in front of Detective Strawson, who quickly shuts it closed.

On the whole, Muhly’s opera is quite a remarkable achievement for the 32-year-old composer. In the first act, the music and the libretto, written by Craig Lucas, combine to move the plot forward with thrilling intensity. However, by the second act it becomes apparent that the libretto is not as strong as it first seemed. Indeed, much of the plot (all of the scenes where Strawson is questioning Brian, certainly) could have been avoided if Strawson had just read the transcripts from the chats first. All of the information is there, and it doesn’t take a genius to notice the true mastermind behind the murder’s tale. In addition, the moment of Jake’s murder—the climax of the opera—where the murderer utters, “I love you, bro,” strikes one as laughable. A simple “I love you” may have suited better. Something about the addition of “bro” detracts from the intimacy between the murderer and Jake.

Alice Coote as Anne Strawson and Paul Appleby as Brian in Nico Muhly's "Two Boys." (photo credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

Alice Coote as Anne Strawson in Nico Muhly’s “Two Boys.” (photo credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

In the music, Muhly occasionally misses the opportunity to emphasize major plot points. For example, the end of act one fell flat simply because the music did not reflect the power of Strawson’s revelation. There are also times in the opera where the orchestration overwhelms the voices, not allowing the singers to be heard. Despite these problems, on the whole the score is well written and engages the listener. The individual performances by Coote, Jennifer Zetlan (Rebecca), Appleby, and the young Pulver are quite impassioned and lovely. Coote, in particular, shines through as a remarkable fit for the role of Detective Strawson.

The direction and design of the show is fabulous. The production utilizes moveable sets and video projections that add another dimension to the opera. The exploitation of the deep space on stage provides a complex array of action and movement that entices the viewer. The only moments that detract from the production are the dance sequences with the chorus. The busyness of the dancers and their superfluous movement were a distraction from the drama onstage.
While a few core problems manifest themselves in Two Boys, the opera is still an overall thrilling and highly exhilarating experience. A lovely score and decent libretto are brought to life in a satisfying production. A wonderful Metropolitan Opera premiere for Muhly, Two Boys is magical to watch and a treat to hear.

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