Two Boys

* published on Oct 23, 2013 in The EDGE

Alice Coote as Anne Strawson and Paul Appleby as Brian

Alice Coote as Anne Strawson and Paul Appleby as Brian  (Source:Ken Howard)

There are many more than two boys in Nico Muhly’s opera, “Two Boys,” which had its American premier Monday night at the Metropolitan opera.

Muhly has become an American prodigy of sorts turning out over 60 pieces in recent years; fueled by prodigious talent and his fierce youth. He turned 32 this past August and during those years he has written concertos, two operas, music for a ballet, choreographed by Benjamin Millepied, eaten dinners with Millepied’s wife Natalie Portman and rocked their baby.

Muhly collaborates with Bjork, Anthony and the Johnsons and great modern folks singers. He is omnivorous in his musical tastes and talents. This newest offering for example has a libretto by the acclaimed playwright Craig Lucas, making this a work created by what may pass as gay artistic royalty.

“Two Boys” thru line is based on real-life events in Manchester, England where a 16-year-old boy nearly killed a younger boy after having been spurred on by the anonymous characters he encountered in an Internet chat room circa 2001.

What bowed at the Met was a restaging of the 2011 version done as a coproduction in London with the English National Opera. “Two Boys” originated as a commissioning partnership with Lincoln Center Theater and it is the first to make it to full production. Wonderfully, Muhly is the youngest composer among the bunch, all of the others dropped by the wayside, thus proving his tenacity as well as much documented abilities.

The theme is dark and the sets and often the music echo this. Director Bartlett Sher utilizes the amazing and inventive projections, films and animation from 59 Productions. This creates an ominous and sometimes perfectly confusing dream world, one in which the audience and the characters do not know if they are watching what passes for reality, or the workings of a deranged teen or the seamy internet world. The set by Michael Yeargan is a series of movable black walls. These slide and morph according to the projections and easily create rooms, a court, a church or a police station.

In the plot there are two characters named Jake, the boy who is attacked and the Internet, or imaginary, one who is played by Christopher Bolduc, a strong baritone in his Met debut. The actual tiny, puny 13-year-old Jake who imagines a world is played by the boy soprano Andrew Pulver, who has an angel’s voice, further cofounding us with his very dark side. It turns out that the actual boy Jake made up all these stories about a wicked Aunt Fiona, Sandra Piques Eddy and devious gardener, Keith Miller, both wonderful and who bring confusion and drama from the imagined world to the real stage.

Alice Coot is the detective and she has a rich voice, and yet there are too many moments where she sings alone, wondering why she can’t solve the case or musing on a detail, where one feels this singular moment stop the action. By comparison Paul Appleby, who is a young tenor, seems to captivate the stage whether in a group or alone.

One of the most moving moments in the opera is when Appleby in the role of Brian, the other boy in the chat room struggling, sings about the freedom he feels when he enters this imagined world of the internet communing with other equally lost youth, or adults impersonating them.

There are others in this huge cast: Brian’s parents, who seem unable to get through to him, played by Maria Zifchak and Kyle Pfortmiller as the hapless dad. Young fragile Jake has a brash older sister named Rebecca played so strongly by soprano Jennifer Zetlan. David Robertson conducts this massive group and causes them to coalesce wonderfully.

There is also a host of dancers who portray the myriad folks on chatting discordantly on the Internet or singing as choir members. I thought the modern jerky movements exemplified the disconnect often felt in the ether was well choreographed by Hofesh Shecter.

Muhly openly acknowledges many musical influences, including his mentor Philip Glass, Benjamin Britten, Meredith Monk, Steve Reich, Baroque music and classical choir works. His deft style folds them all into his own. I must admit a preference for the large choral moments, and the times in “Two Boys” when projections, dance and wild sounds all converge to create vibrations, but I understand that a story must be told as well, and it certainly is a dark, wild ride. It is a modern cautionary tale boldly envisioned.

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