Composer: Nico Muhly
Production: Bartlett Sher
Conductor: David Robertson
Anne Strawson: Alice Coote
Brian: Paul Appleby
Jake (Boy soprano): Andrew Pulver
Jake: Christopher Bolduc
Rebecca: Jennifer Zetlan
Fiona: Sandra Piques Eddy
Peter: Keith Miller
While The Met occupies a preeminent place in the opera world, it is not exactly known for ground-breaking productions. So needless to say that the New York premiere of Nico Muhly's Two Boys, the first work from the Met/Lincoln Center Theater New Works Program, had been eagerly expected, at least by the more adventurous-minded portion of The Met's audience. And let's face it, they may not be the richest or the most powerful, but they're hopefully here to stay.
Inspired by true events that roughly involved two English teenagers, Internet chat rooms, fictive identities, sexual tensions, virtual seduction and actual stabbing, the story certainly has plenty of attention-grabbing drama to pick and keep most people's interest. Moreover, if composer Nico Muhly turned out to be even just about half the endlessly inventive wonder boy he's been touted to be, I figured that the whole enterprise would be worth a trip down Broadway yesterday afternoon.
The actual crime dates back to 2003, which feels both like ancient history in IT years and a giant leap forward from the traditional 18th and 19th century fare that regularly headlines The Met's programming. The opera's gestation took several years until its London premiere in 2011, and then another couple of years were spent on extensive revisions before it finally made it to The Met a couple of weeks ago. Fact is, no matter what the end result would end up being, Two Boys was already a noteworthy musical event in itself.
The cast was mostly unknown, except maybe for British mezzo-soprano Alice Coote, whose sterling reputation quickly proved to be totally justified as her clear, robust and flexible voice gave life to the detective Anne Strawson. Her rather thankless role has apparently been fleshed out since the London run and I can't really decide if it was a good idea or not. Her scenes at home kind of felt out of place and soap-operaish, but still provided a couple of additional insights into her character, who could otherwise have easily passed for a one-dimensional spinster defined by her computer illiteracy and loneliness.
As the 16-year-old Brian, tenor Paul Appleby was a viscerally brooding and unusually gullible young man, whose solid and expressive singing successfully conveyed mounting yearnings and frustration. Boy soprano Andrew Pulver was an impressively believable Jake, the 13-year-old computer whiz who had created a chat room full of imaginary characters for his own disturbing purposes, and enchanted the audience with his innocent voice and unique presence.
The whole cast of fictitious individuals populating Jake's world was uniformly in top shape, from the provocative sister Rebecca, sung with titillating effectiveness by soprano Jennifer Zetlan, to the manipulative spy Fiona, whose cool poise mezzo-soprano Sandra Piques Eddy expertly depicted, to the evil gardener Peter, impersonated with alarming creepiness by bass-baritone Keith Miller, to the well-adjusted Jake, to whom baritone Christopher Bolduc gave handsomeness and self-confidence.
The boys' parents fared just as well, with extra points for Caitlin Lynch and her highly melodious singing as Jake's heart-broken and clueless mother. Cluelessness was also the main emotion ably expressed by Maria Zifchak and Kyle Pfortmiller as Brian's parents. Veteran Judith Forst had a short but outstanding role as Anne Strawson's old mother, and provided a welcome touch of comic relief.
Creating a high-tech environment onstage is by default a fairly new challenge, but this sleek production has pretty much succeeded. The various sets, which efficiently moved from one to another, were brilliantly evocative of the seemingly possibilities lurking in cyberspace, including countless fake, meaningless, misleading, sometimes dangerous, always unaccountable, virtual connections. The smart use of videos added a physicality to this brand new high-tech world with a fleeting gay sex scene, online conversations in real time, and increasingly insistent messages asking if somebody - anybody - was there, all in the name of an escape from a reality seemingly filled with loneliness and disappointment.
The production was not an undisputed winner though, mostly due to some unnecessary and distracting dance numbers. I would assume that they were introduced to physically convey the chat rooms' frantic virtual activity as opposed to the motionless computer users, but the music was doing the job just fine, offering a stark contrast between the still bodies and the pulsating sounds.
The other lesser issue is that the story did not always unfold as smoothly as hoped for, mostly due to the naturally convoluted nature of the plot and the use of flashbacks, but the libretto was generally strong and the few slight bumps on the road did not manage to significantly spoil the enjoyment. Come to think of it, it is also possible to see the uneven narrative pace as - incidentally or not - indicative of the short attention spans often associated with heavy Internet users.
The music, on the other hand, was an appealing combination of various influences, among whom Benjamin Britten and Philip Glass were clearly, but not overwhelmingly, distinguishable. While the overall tone was resolutely minimalist, the singers still had opportunities to do their operatic thing to satisfying effect. But the brightest star of the show was hands-down the chorus, which turned all the arresting choral parts into memorable moments. From the first foray into the Internet world, to the church episode, to the final haunting scene, the singing was all hypnotic sounds and shimmering charisma. Attentive conductor David Robertson made a point of keeping the complex score vibrant and colorful, making it boldly experimental and effortlessly accessible.
As far as I could tell, the opera house was almost full for this Saturday matinee and, even more importantly, pretty much everybody came back to their seats after intermission and heartily applauded at the end. I am not sure if this means that Two Boys has a secure future ahead of it, but for all I could see and hear around me, it definitely sounded promising.