I was at the first night of the new opera by American wunderkind Nico Muhly at English National Opera on Friday night. Two Boys is a ‘police procedural’ story about online interactions in the world of chatrooms which lead to a teenager, Brian, stabbing a younger online friend, Jake. Based loosely on a true story, the action happens in flashback as a detective, played by Susan Bickley, traces her way through Brian’s account of events leading up to the assault. In true Agatha Christie style, the thriller-style plot has a dramatic twist – turning, brilliantly, on the spelling of a single word – in the second half which casts all the events of the first half into a new light. But, also in Agatha Christie style, the requirements of plot outweigh those of character as, in order to hold back the secret at the heart of the story, we are given insufficient insight into the motivations of Jake to make his actions plausible, even in the heightened world of opera.
That said, the evidence is that Muhly, already a major figure in all fields of contemporary music, deserves his reputation. His music is assured and imaginatively scored, in particular in the passages for chorus, which are the highlights of the piece. There is more than the odd trace of Philip Glass in the mesmeric repetitions which start the opera and recur throughout, although it is considerably more sophisticated music than Glass’s. The final tableau in particular, an epiphany for all the characters about the urge for connectedness in the modern ‘digital’ world, has the epic grandeur of the best parts of Satyagraha. The orchestration is sophisticated throughout, endlessly colourful, the instruments confidently handled, but too often overwhelming the solo singing. I would have had no chance of following the plot without the surtitles.
The chorus is excellent, representing the multiple competing voices of the internet, sometimes finding poetry in the banal language of web chat, sometimes offering a harrowing glimpse of the violent threats of cyber-bullying, in interludes which have a similar function to the Sea Interludes in Peter Grimes. But if the choral writing is a triumph, the solo vocal writing is more problematic, especially in the thankless role of the detective. There is generally not enough characterisation of individual roles, with everyone singing in largely the same declamatory arioso style.
The production is impressive, the bleakly anonymous urban landscape brought to teeming life through the inventive film projections of 59 Productions. Sometimes we see swirling screensaver patterns, sometimes security camera footage, sometimes the webchat flashed up in real time, all projected onto the side of wheeled flats, forever closing in to make a claustrophobic contemporary landscape.
But taken as a whole, the opera does not quite work. What it has in narrative tension it loses in poor characterisation. What it offers in terms of instrumental writing it lacks in the solo writing. What it offers in a grimly engrossing staging it loses in supposing that setting a story in cyber-space automatically makes it interesting. But what is certain is that Nico Muhly is a force to be reckoned with, and someone who will write far better operas than this in the future.