Crime and punishment

Nico Muhly's debut opera is an extraordinary dramatic feat - but the music suffers.

A thirteen-year-old boy is stabbed, a sixteen-year-old boy taken into custody. "Even senseless crimes makes sense," pronounces Detective Inspector Anne Strawson. So when the analogue logic of CCTV fails, she sets out into the chaotic chatter of cyberspace, searching for the digital solution to a crime of a technological age. Unfortunately, in Nico Muhly's debut opera, the answer comes in the form of white noise - a nullifying minimalism that dulls the bladed brutality of the action.

A co-production with New York's Metropolitan Opera, Two Boys has been years in the planning. Hype has been intelligently fostered not only by the articulate figurehead of 29-year-old Muhly himself, but also in a multimedia assault of website and viral YouTube video. At last, a contemporary opera not only talking the digital talk, but tweeting it too.

Developing his interest in narrative opera, Muhly has taken the legacy of Britten and Berg and created a police procedural. Shocking crime, love interest, alcoholic loner detective, are all in the places allotted by countless episodes of Prime Suspect; even the dialogue of Craig Lucas' libretto is the lumpen vernacular of text-speak and casual profanity of daily life, never allowing itself to get seduced into prose let alone poetry.

Yet somewhere in the background of this familiar drama - and always the background - is a new element: music. All the action must travel at operatic pace, must contend with the conventions of aria, duet, ensemble that make up the genre. Muhly's answer too often is to attempt to wriggle around these, to transform a love duet into a "private chat", musically fragmented and insubstantial, to deny closure in his Act I and II finales until even a passacaglia feels unfinished, inconclusive.

Muhly's brand of muscular minimalism owes much to Philip Glass and more to John Adams, whose textures as well as whose techniques animate the writing. Yet while Adams will occasionally surrender to the lyric impulse, will use his musical processes to shape as well as reflect the drama, here music seems oddly incidental, a sort of over-promoted soundtrack to Bartlett Sher's efficient production that coaxes where it should commandAt its best in the yearning strings of Brian's (Nicky Spence) ode to the internet and in the poignant Britten-inspired writing for treble voice (precociously delivered by the captivating Joseph Beesley), it exposes itself at the moment of impact, the stabbing itself. Here surely is the drama to compel a composer, to force descriptive music into action; but just as John Adams' Dr Atomic surrendered to sound-effect at the moment of nuclear explosion (a collapse earned, and sustained by the opera as a whole), so here Muhly refuses the challenge in orchestral writing that barely acknowledges the event.

Like the sinister, faceless cousins of Peter Grimes' Borough, the chorus are central to Muhly's drama - a multiplicity of voices, a web of aleatory polyphony that seethes and pulses with the life of the internet. Framed in the aura of glowing laptop screens it is their music that cocoons the drama, embracing and dissolving it into their digital Babel. Their music is staged by the exquisite animations and projections of 59 Productions, which fill the extremes of the Coliseum stage space with fluid worlds of codeless patterns.

If challenged by the music's refusal to acknowledge character, ENO's magnificent cast of singers didn't show it. Nicky Spence outdid all expectation in the vocal authority and shading of teenager assailant Brian, matched for quality of tone by Mary Bevan's pouting schoolgirl Rebecca. After an unusually uncertain start Susan Bickley stepped up to the crucial role of Anne Strawson, her dramatic experience serving her well through the rather thankless task she is set.

There is a contradiction at the core of all minimalist opera. Its anti-dramatic drama chafes against the memory of Wagner's Gesamkunstwerk, and one must surrender to this tension if any understanding or enjoyment is to be had. In pitting narrative at its most urgent - the detective drama - against determinedly non-narrative music Muhly achieves an extraordinary feat, fostering genuine tension in his listener, calibrating his climax with mastery. Yet all goes for naught if he cannot, or will not, force the moment to its musical crisis.

English National Opera, 24 June

Photo: Getty
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Commons Confidential: Jeremy in Jerusalem

Your weekly dose of gossip from around Westminster.

Theresa May didn’t know if she was coming or going even before her reckless election gamble and the Grenfell Tower disaster nudged her towards a Downing Street exit. Between the mock-Gothic old parliament and the modern Portcullis House is a subterranean passageway with two sets of glass swing doors.

From whichever direction MPs approach, the way ahead is on the left and marked “Pull”, and the set on the right displays a “No Entry” sign. My snout recalls that May, before she was Prime Minister, invariably veered right, ignoring the warning and pushing against the crowd. Happier days. Now Tanking Theresa risks spinning out of No 10’s revolving door.

May is fond of wrapping herself in the Union flag, yet it was Jeremy Corbyn who came close to singing “Jerusalem” during the election. I gather his chief spinner, Seumas Milne, proposed William Blake’s patriotic call to arms for a campaign video. Because of its English-centred lyrics and copyright issues, they ended up playing Lily Allen’s “Somewhere Only We Know” instead over footage of Jezza meeting people, in a successful mini-movie inspired by Bernie Sanders’s “America” advert.

Corbyn’s feet walking upon England’s mountains green when the Tories have considered Jerusalem theirs since ancient times would be like Mantovani May talking grime with Stormzy.

The boot is on the other foot among MPs back at Westminster. Labour’s youthful Wes Streeting is vowing to try to topple Iain Duncan Smith in Chingford and Woodford Green at the next election, after the Tory old trooper marched into Ilford North again and again at the last one. Streeting’s marginal is suddenly a 9,639-majority safe seat and IDS’s former Tory bastion a 2,438-majority marginal. This east London grudge match has potential.

The Conservatives are taking steps to reverse Labour’s youth surge. “That is the last election we go to the polls when universities are sitting,” a cabinet minister snarled. The subtext is that the next Tory manifesto won’t match Corbyn’s pledge to scrap tuition fees.

Nice touch of the Tory snarler Karl McCartney to give Strangers’ Bar staff a box of chocolates after losing Lincoln to the Labour red nurse Karen Lee. Putting on a brave face, he chose Celebrations. Politics is no Picnic and the Wispa is that McCartney didn’t wish to Fudge defeat by describing it as a Time Out.

Police hats off to the Met commissioner, Cressida Dick, who broke ranks with her predecessors by meeting the bobbies guarding parliament and not just their commanders. Coppers addressing Dick as “ma’am” were asked to call her “Cress”, a moniker she has invited MPs to use. All very John Bercow-style informality.

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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