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

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Why a new Keith Richards documentary doesn't give enough satisfaction

I wonder whether Julien Temple is stitching up Richards in his documentary The Origin of the Species.

As we sink down into the dog days of summer, something weird appears to have happened to BBC2. Boy, does it reek of testosterone – and that’s even before we get to Louis XIV’s underpants (yes, unbelievably, the first series of Versailles is still not over). It’s the television equivalent of a potting shed, complete with leaky armchair and battered record player: its schedule last week included, among other manly treats, Gregg Wallace touring a cereal factory, Roald Dahl talking about an old mate who made model aeroplanes, and Keith Richards describing his meteoric rise through the ranks of the Dartford Scouts (“Suddenly, I was a patrol leader . . . I could get the other cats into it!”). I kept thinking of Charlotte Moore, the executive who now runs both BBC1 and BBC2. What on earth is she thinking? Doesn’t she want to rush around the place, squirting air freshener and opening windows?

I’ll spare you the delights of Wallace, who has unaccountably been given a series called Inside the Factory in which, over the course of six hour-long episodes, he gets to find out how various things are made. Imagine the treatment he usually reserves for a good meringue on MasterChef directed at a conveyor belt and you’ll have some idea of the patronising tedium involved. I’ll also move pretty swiftly through The Marvellous World of Roald Dahl (23 July, 8pm), which was basically Jackanory for grown-ups, narrated by Robert Lindsay, who read extracts from Dahl’s autobiography, Going Solo, in a voice I can only describe as the full spiced ham. I wasn’t after a hatchet job; I love Dahl as much as the next fortysomething, brought up to believe that in Fantastic Mr Fox and Danny the Champion of the World you will find all the rules necessary for living. But nor was I in the market for this kind of unmediated hagiography, a portrait Dahl himself – who thought nice people rather boring, and vicious ones endlessly fascinating – would doubtless have despised.

No, let’s head instead straight to the hard stuff, by which I mean to Keith Richards: the Origin of the Species, in which the director Julien Temple focused perhaps just a little too closely on the guitarist’s oh-so-English childhood (the film concentrates exclusively on the years 1943-62). Poor Keef. He’s spent so long trying to be cool, he can’t remember how to be anything else. And so it was that we were treated to the weird sight of a 72-year-old man, wearing a range of headbands, talking about rationing, council houses and, yes, the Scouts (apparently, he got loads of badges) in the kind of language last heard in an airless teepee at the Esalen Institute, Big Sur, in about 1969. “I can’t say I had any real affection for the joint,” he said of Dartford, the town where he grew up, and to whose determination to charge a toll for crossing its bridge over the Thames he apparently takes exception (“a stick-up joint”). Woo! Taxing road users. Rock’n’roll.

Was Temple trying very subtly to stitch up Richards, or was this Open University-style assemblage of black-and-white newsreel and interviews a genuine, even reverential, attempt to place a so-called genius in context? Knowing Temple’s other work (last year, he made a film about Wilko Johnson in which he presented the Dr Feelgood guitarist as the seer of Canvey Island), I feel it must surely have been the latter – and yet, I still wonder . . . That title: it’s so appropriately (sarcastically?) Darwinian, given what we know of the Stones’ politics, their restless quest to go on – and on – making money. Survival of the fittest, and all that. Deep into the film, Richards complained about the rise of advertising in the Sixties. “Wanty, wanty!” he said, talking disdainfully of Daz and capitalism. This, I felt, was a bit rich, coming from him. At other moments, though, there was something elegiac in his tone, a dolefulness that cut through the enamelled rock-star-speak. A white mare on a bomb site; a dead tramp in a pillbox; the day sweets came off the ration; the day his voice broke and he could no longer remain a member of the school choir (“Here’s the pink slip, man!”). As the titles rolled, movie reels flickered over his face, eerily. A study in the past: granite, lit from below.

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 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue