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