Music by Nico Muhly
Libretto by Craig Lucas
U. S. Premiere
Warning: Contains spoilers below.
This was the opening night of the U.S. premiere of Two Boys. I didn’t realize that, but it meant that I got to see the composer, the librettist, and others (the choreographer and the projection designers?) take a bow at the end. The production has been workshopped since the London premiere a couple of years ago, given Muhly the opportunity to create “a more focused ending”. But there are still some issues, which I’ll discuss in a moment.
First, the production itself. I really enjoyed it. Muhly has a very rich musical vocabulary, and he writes really well for choral ensembles. His sensitivity in setting English text reminded me of Menotti more than Britten (whom Muhly claims as a major influence). He has worked closely with Philip Glass, but I think the forward impetus in his music is more like John Adams or Michael Torke. (There was one brief passage that particularly reminded me of Nixon in China.)
The overall production is dark, because of all the video projections, but that somehow suits the subject. The projections included the texts of the chat rooms, which appeared as the characters sang them. (Amusingly, the Met Titles preserved the internet spellings of the chat room: “r u there”, “c u l8r”, and so forth. Except for the occasionaly “lol”, which got typed, but not sung.) The chorus, representing the faceless masses of the internet, often singing overlapping and unintelligible text, often sat in rows of chairs, with their faces illuminated by their laptops, while abstract visuals and fragments of their chats scrolled across the back of the stage. The chorus was supplemented by a corps of dancers, who writhed and twisted among them. This was an addition since the London production, to lessen the static nature of the chorals scenes. One reviewer thought it was superfluous, but I thought it was an effective manifestation of the turbulent emotions that remain hidden and unspoken on teh interwebs.
There were also fragments of videos from the surveillance camera at the shopping mall where the stabbing takes place, which gives a gritty realism to the opera, but also is part of the undercutting of the plot. Which brings me to the “issues”. I think the opera has been misrepresented. The publicity makes it seem all about the two boys at the center of the story: one stabbing the other on the loading dock of a store. But it’s at least as much about the detective who is investigating the case. Think of Law & Order: Criminal Intent crossed with Tron. The guy next to me thought the detective’s back story and her issues with her invalid mother were superfluous. (She doesn’t want to take the case, because the boy who has been stabbed is the same age as the son she gave up in favor of her career. Apparently she divorced a husband, too, but not much is said about that. So did she give up the son before marrying, or only custody? The break would only be irrevocable if the former.) I suppose it was part of an attempt to “round out” the character, and I thought it was tenuous at best, but it was necessary, if only so that a chance remark by the detective’s mother could give her the clue to unlocking the case.
* HERE BE SPOILERS *
I was bothered by the casting of a young baritone as Jake, the boy who is stabbed and ultimately dies, because it has been made clear in the publicity, and in the video that runs on the scrim before the opera begins, that Jake is thirteen years old. (It’s a bit easier to accept a young tenor as Brian, who is sixteen.) It isn’t until late in the opera, when the boy soprano who had a solo in the Evensong sequence swaps places with the guy singing Jake, that I realized that the young man/baritone was Jake’s online persona, and that Brian didn’t realize Jake was thirteen until he shows up at Brian’s house. This also explains why Brian is so weirded out when the “boy soprano” in the choir keeps staring at him, when he thinks he’s going to meet Jake’s sister Rebecca at church. Jake has invented a whole cast of internet personas, using the names of his sister, a friend of his mother, and (perhaps) the family gardener, in order to get close to Brian. Part of the attraction is sexual—Jake gives Brian a blow job when he spends the night—but part is manipulative: Jake is goading Brian into killing him so that he (Jake) won’t have to endure a painful death from an inoperable brain tumor.
And that’s the clue that the detective’s mother provides to her computer–illiterate daughter: that it’s all a masquerade. On the internet, as the New Yorker cartoon says, nobody knows you’re a dog. It all makes sense at the end, of course, but the big reveal is a bit undercut, because the reveal that Jake–the–baritone is a creation of Jake–the–treble is itself undercut by knowing a priori that Jake is only thirteen—hence my confusion at the listed casting. (The boy soprano is credited only as “Boy soprano”, and not “IRL Jake”.)
* HERE END THE SPOILERS *
The guy next to me at the Met thought that this opera would be too easily dated, and thus wouldn’t really enter the repertory (although he was a big fan of Muhly’s music). And I suppose it is fixed in time (viz., 2001): that’s about as late as you can get to have a middle–aged professional woman be so totally ignorant of the internet. Even her boss is reasonably well clued in. My counter to that was that Menotti’s The Consul is fairly rooted in time—the Cold War—and that doesn’t prevent it from being revived. (Not often enough, I think; it’s unjustly neglected, and possibly Menotti’s best work.)
And the reviewers in The Washington Post (Anne Midgette) and The New York Times (Anthony Tommasini) also complained that the characters weren’t rounded enough, they were two–dimensional. As if the characters in Il Trovatore or Norma have such depth? The title character of Rigoletto has depth, but not so much the rest of the cast. (The Duke is all about sex; that’s all you need to know about him. And Gilda is really a simpleton, a fool for love, albeit a very expressive one.) So from that point of view, I think the opera is being a bit harshly over–judged. And if it becomes a neglected jugendwerk, like Puccini’s Le Villi, well, I guess there are worse fates. (I saw Le Villi a couple of years ago at Opera Vivente, and I thought it held up rather well. Puccini had already “found his voice”, it’s no more or less profound than Giselle.)
A quibble about the credits: they list Richard Cox as the “Celebrant”, when he really should be the “Officiant”. Muhly sets the whole opening of Evensong: the Preces, and the singing of Psalm 133 (with its subcontextual brethren dwelling in unity).
|Anne Strawson, Detective Inspector
|Liam, Detective Chief Inspector
|Cynthia, Jake’s mother
|Americal suburban moms
||Anne Nonnemacher, Maria D’Amato
|American suburban girl
||Sandra Piques Eddy
|American Congressional page
||Juan José de León
|Projections and Animation
Leo warner, Mark Grimmer, Nicol Scott, Peter Stenhouse
|Assistant Stage Directors
||Jonathon Loy, Daniel Rigazzi, Kathleen Smith Belcher