‘Two Boys’ is the new opera from talented young musician and composer Nico Muhley with librettist Craig Lucas, commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera in New York in collaboration with the ENO. It is based on a poignant (and true) news story - we watch Inspector Anne Strawson as she struggles to find 13 year old Jake’s killer. There is one obvious lead – a teenage boy caught on CCTV leaving the murder scene, and yet as the narrative unfurls it seems there is more to this crime than the obvious facts. To discover the truth, Detective Strawson must delve into a menacing cyberworld of internet sites and chatrooms.
I am usually not keen on modern operas, preferring the opulence of the classics, and yet ‘Two Boys’ kept me on the edge of my seat throughout. The clever storytelling, with tiny clues revealed throughout, left me desperately trying to solve the murder mystery myself; it was completely engaging and captivating, I even forgot about the Andy Murray match taking place simultaneously.
Muhley’s music is complex and requires great concentration from all participants. Rumon Gamba has a challenging job conducting in the pit, and he really exerts himself keeping it all perfectly together. Luckily on opening night, everyone was 100% committed and the result was a stunning and ethereal sound-world that enveloped the audience. It is an enchanting score - spooky and beautiful, imaginative and aggressive, and I found it heartbreakingly moving; towards the end I could feel tears sting my eyes.
Vocally, I enjoyed the chorus moments best: massive, grand, multi-layered writing that conveys the overwhelming reach of the internet. These moments of polyphony hark back to Palestrina’s intricate motets but here the cutting modern lyrics present an alarming juxtaposition. Unfortunately some of the solo lines are drowned by the rich, expansive orchestral textures, a balance will hopefully evolve as the run goes on. This is particularly true for Susan Bickley as Detective Anne Strawson, she gives a stunningly convincing performance dramatically but is vocally not quite powerful enough to always be heard clearly. The two boys however, Nicky Spence as adolescent Brian, and Jonathan McGovern as the young victim, are both outstanding.
Bartlett Sher’s staging is beautifully realised through Michael Yeargan’s designs, a set that really adds to the production. The large chorus stand illuminated eerily at the back while other characters are elevated in darkly lit towers across the front of the stage - it is oddly magical and otherworldly, perfect for depicting the cyberspace realm.
In my opinion, Nico Muhley’s new creation is an operatic masterpiece that will not only stun audiences but will also send out an important message about the dangers of the internet.
Two Boys continues until 8 July, book here.