Nico Muhly’s ‘Two Boys’ at English National Opera

June 27, 2011

Nico Muhly, Two Boys (world premiere): Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the English National Opera, Rumon Gamba (conductor). The Coliseum, London, 24.6.2011 (MB)

DI Anne Strawson – Susan Bickley
Brian – Nicky Spence
Rebecca – Mary Bevan
Fiona – Heather Shipp
Anne’s mother – Valerie Reid
Jake – Jonathan McGovern
Peter – Robert Gleadow
Cynthia – Anne-Clare Monk
Doctor – Michael Burke
Brian’s mother – Rebecca Stockland
Brian’s father – Paul Napier-Burrows
Liam, detective constable – Philip Daggett
American suburban mother 1 – Clare Mitcher
American suburban mother 2 – Claire Pendleton
American suburban girl – Eleanor Burke
Celebrant – Geraint Hylton
American Congressman – Anton Rich
American congressional page – Peter Kirk
Bartlett Sher (director)
Michael Yeargan (set designs)
Catherine Zuber (costumes)
Donald Holder (lighting)
Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Martin Merry)
Orchestra of the English National Opera

Production Picture © Richard Hubert Smith

A huge publicity drive had been lavished upon this, the premiere of Nico Muhly’s Two Boys, not least a Youtube video with at best a tenuous connection to the opera. With a libretto written by Craig Lucas, it is described as ‘a spellbinding tale of intrigue and attempted murder, loosely inspired by an incredible but true story’. Whatever the truth or otherwise, it is, I am afraid, an incredible but dull story – considerably less compelling than your average, or even below-average episode of The Bill, which might at least possess a certain degree of competence in its construction.

A boy sitting at home, Brian, chats to another, younger boy, Jake, the latter inventing a number of online personas: Rebecca, Fiona, Peter, an older Jake. A preposterous yet uninvolving scheme is constructed in which those personas persuade Brian to kill (the real) Jake. The motivation seems to be – though my accompanying friend thought I was reading too much into it – Jake’s desire to be remembered for the beauty of his treble voice, and therefore to die before it breaks. This is implausible and creepy, but alas, not in an interesting way, since nothing is developed. A spot of online masturbation is presumably intended to provoke controversy, or at least to show how ‘with it’ the story is; it does not even prove embarrassing, merely dull.

DI Anne Strawson investigates by reading through the Internet transcripts. That is about it. There are other characters, but they merely seemed present for the sake of creating more characters. The sub-plot concerning Anne’s mother is especially hapless. An ailing woman who lives with the detective is presumably intended to give some insight into the latter’s character. It might have worked in an episode of a television detective series, but here seems irrelevant in the extreme, having no discernible connection with the rest of the action. I am at a loss when it comes to some of the supporting characters lower down the cast list: presumably they appear, but it is unclear when or how. Since characterisation is nil, it is difficult to tell.

Moreover, the libretto does not seem able to work out where the action is taking place; delivery of the words consequently veers uncomfortably across both sides of the Atlantic. One minute the inspector laments her inability to contact MI5, the next we are plunged into a host of Americanisms. Perhaps some point is being made; if so, it went over my head. ‘Dunno’ and the like certainly do not sound well when sung in the Queen’s English. The text-message-speak is particularly odd, entirely dependent upon the titles, since correct English is sung. One sees ‘omg’ but hears ‘Oh my God!’ It comes across not as a clever navigation between worlds, if that were intended, but as confused flailing. And do we really believe that any of us beyond teenage years can convincingly imitate whatever argot might be current?

Attempts seemed doomed to resemble the stereotypical trendy vicar. The Internet and its world of potential and multiple identities ought to offer many possibilities for a libretto, but the choice of subject matter is not enough. A chorus of Internet users is not a bad idea, at all, but it is a starting point that the music never even begins to develop, the score, whether for individual voices, chorus, or ensemble, sounding effortfully churned out. We need another ten minutes here, to fill out a round of pointless questioning: select option five and out comes the anonymous music.

For Muhly’s music is the real problem. I had thought that Donizetti hit rock bottom with respect to operatic composition until hearing this score. It does not even have the courage to become truly unbearable in the manner of Muhly’s mentor, Philip Glass. What tends to happen is that a chord, apparently chosen at random, is repeated a good few times, a little decoration is applied above, welcome is outstayed, and then another chord is chosen. The vocal writing is aimless; it would have sounded neither better nor worse if turned upside down or back to front. (Indeed, a spot of retrograde inversion, however unmotivated, might have added slight interest.) At best, it sounds like music that would have been rejected for The Bill. There is a real craft, after all, to writing commercial music. This, however, comes across as music by formula, and I do not mean that in Stockhausen’s sense; it is more akin to a musical representation of a dot-to-dot colouring book. There has to be some way to fill in the musical gaps, though the drama, such as it was, would have been less tedious without the music. Occasional loud notes for the tuba appear to no discernible purpose; other ‘dramatic colour’ is provided by repeated drum strokes, repeated too often before something else was tried. Perhaps the most jarring moment – I use the term relatively, given the glacial rate of harmonic change – comes with an apparent attempt at gravity, when a progression straight out of the Enigma Variations arrives and re-arrives, and re-arrives…

We are told of Muhly’s love for Anglican church music. It is odd, then, that the faux versicles and responses from a church scene – which seems to be there less for any dramatic reason than because the composer presumably wanted to write some such music – are less distinguished than even the common-garden variety a parish church might offer for a Thursday Evensong in November. An average member of a choral foundation might at least have proffered more ‘interesting’ harmony. I do not exaggerate when I say that I have seen far better writing amongst undergraduate compositional exercises I have idly leafed through. Indeed, the whole enterprise resembled nothing more than an A-level music and drama collaboration. The staging, save for Anne’s peculiar habit of interviewing her suspect at considerable distance, was perfectly adequate: expensive-looking in terms of some of its designs, yet with nothing to frighten away the horses.

A highly talented cast was utterly wasted. Susan Bickley gave a typically strong performance as the detective. Nicky Spence displayed a fine, musical tenor line as Brian, though – and this is not his fault at all – the age gap between him and Jake seemed too wide. In the latter role, Joseph Beesley showed a far greater command of the operatic stage than most trebles: his was an excellent performance indeed. Mary Bevan and Jonathan McGovern did what they could with two of Jake’s personas:  more should definitely be heard from both of these fine voices. The same could be said, yet more strongly still, of Robert Gleadow’s virile bass-baritone, here expended upon the make-believe villain, Peter. The orchestra sometimes sounded half-hearted: my only surprise is that as much as half a heart could be mustered for such a score.

When one thinks of the plethora of highly talented young composers at large – and multiplies it considerably, given the number of whom one will not have heard this seems a wasted opportunity. I can think of a good few whom I know personally, let alone those whose work I know, who would certainly have presented more interesting scores. Marketing, alas, seems to have been all on this occasion, for Muhly has some fashionable backers in New York, whose Metropolitan Opera is co-producing the work. Perhaps, though, there is a lesson to be learned. An experience such as this helps one appreciate anew the level of craftsmanship present even in relatively undistinguished operas, let alone in fine but flawed works or masterpieces. Few operas will so much as approach Tristan or Così, but most will have considerably more to offer than Two Boys.

Mark Berry

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