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

Peter Kay's Car Share. BBC
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Peter Kay's Car Share will restore your faith in human beings

 I clutch at John and Kayleigh's potential for happiness as if at straws. 

I discovered Peter Kay’s Car Share about a year ago, by accident. BBC News at Ten had finished and there we were, slumped in our seats, despondent, unable to move. It came on, by my memory, immediately afterwards, and we zombies stared at it unthinkingly at first, unaware that we were in the presence of greatness. But it didn’t take long for the penny to drop and we’ve been obsessed ever since. A year on a, I am convinced – forgive the mild pomposity – that this is one of the most inspired and culturally significant television shows of our age.

Have you seen it? Perhaps you have: the first series, which was originally broadcast in 2015, won a couple of Baftas and was the most popular “box set” ever to be released on BBC iPlayer. The second – too short – series (Tuesdays, 9pm) concludes on BBC1 on 2 May. If you haven’t seen it, you need to. For one thing, it will make you smile. It is very funny, but it is also tender; its unstated subject being kindness, it has the ability briefly to restore one’s faith in human beings.

For another, it is rooted in provincial reality in a way no other television programme is right now. Try as I might to resist using the words “metropolitan bubble”, I can’t help but feel that those columnists who persist, post-Brexit vote, in trotting out every demeaning cliché it’s possible to imagine about the north and its apparently uniform population of “ordinary people” should be force-fed it. What Kay and his co-writers understand better than they do is that no one is “ordinary”. Every life comes with its kinks and idiosyncrasies, its survival mechanisms, its share of demented dreams.

John (Kay) and Kayleigh (Sian Gibson, utterly endearing and giving the performance of a lifetime) work in a supermarket somewhere in the environs of Bolton. He’s management; she works on the shopfloor in promotions. They share a car – he drives – to and from work. In the first series, this was an arrangement they had reached reluctantly, as a result of a work-sanctioned scheme. In the second, they’re doing it by choice. In short, they love each other, though as yet this is unspoken, at least on his part. As they travel, they listen to a cheesy radio station, Forever FM, which plays old hits, mostly from the 1980s (they’re in their forties, so this suits). Meanwhile, the world goes by: traffic jams and roundabouts, out-of-town superstores and suburban cul-de-sacs. It sounds bleak, and perhaps it is, in a way. You can’t ever see the horizon. But it’s summer, and the evenings are long, and everything is suffused with a soft light. Somehow, it takes you back.

They sing, they gossip, they tease, they reminisce, they laugh at one another’s jokes, and sometimes they have small battles, miniature fallings-out. In one episode – the finest of them all so far – they go to their work party dressed as Harry Potter (him) and Hagrid (her) and return home in the company of a Smurfette, also known as Elsie from the deli counter (a comic turn of cast-iron genius by Conleth Hill, the classical actor currently playing George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in the West End of London).

Less accomplished writers than Kay, Gibson and Paul Coleman would have had the trio making gags about her blue face paint or singing the annoying Smurfs theme. But the show being truly brilliant, for the next 20 minutes no one mentions that there’s a huge, flirtatious Smurfette with a Northern Irish accent and an air that is at once vulnerable and slightly menacing in the front seat of John’s red Mini.

In this episode, loneliness – another of the themes in this series – threatens to rise up out of the drunken, early-hours darkness. But in the end they send it on its way. John and Kayleigh roll their eyes at Elsie’s vulgar antics but ultimately they’re glad of her, just as they’re glad of each other. John is a man who draws his neighbours’ curtains for them while they’re away; Kayleigh is a woman who can squeeze intense pleasure from almost anything, up to and including a two-for-one offer on tickets for a moderately rubbish safari park. I want them to be together so much. I clutch at their potential for happiness as if at straws. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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