Monday, 27 June 2011

Review of Nico Muhly'sTwo Boys

Nico Muhly's first opera Two Boys has received a great deal of advance publicity and interest, partly because the young composer (he's 29) has made such a stir with his instrumental and vocal music. But the path from instrumental and vocal composer to opera composer is not necessarily straightforward. In advance of the premiere I had a couple of reservations. Firstly, why was English National Opera supporting new work by an American composer, no matter how talented, instead of a British one; surely ENO should be nurturing British talent in this area. Secondly, having one's first opera premiered in a joint production between English National Opera and the Met in New York seems entirely too high profile an event, no matter how much of a whiz kid you are. First operas should be produced in an arena where it is OK to fail, to experiment, to not make things work.

Muhly's new work, written to a libretto by playwright Craig Lucas, is an enormously creditable, capable and engaging work. It shows much promise and some flashes of brilliance which hopefully should encourage Muhly to work further in the genre. It is not a masterpiece and Muhly may feel he needs to revisit the work before allowing to have greater circulation following the initial performances in London and New York.

The plot is written in a slightly complex form of flashback, whereby Brian (Nicky Spence) is telling DI Anne Strawson (Susan Bickley) how Jake (Jonathan McGovern) came to be murdered. Brian's narration is played out before us, thus allowing Lucas and Muhly to freely mix narration, flashback and Strawson's interventions in a fluid way. The case involves the internet and depends for its interest on the fact that Strawson is not internet savvy, so must have things explained to her. Muhly punctuates the narrative with choral interludes which depict the myriad chatter of internet chat-rooms.

It is these interludes which form the highlight (musically and dramatically) of the operas. Here Muhly's music manages to achieve the excitement which is missing in the narrative and approaches best the example of John Adams who is patently such an influence on Muhly.

For the main narrative Muhly contrasts the expressionistly lyrical outbursts for Bickley with the plainer narratives for Spence and the other characters. His vocal writing is lyrical, evidently singer friendly and expressive but not yet completely memorable. His passionate arias for Bickley are intended to be some of the highlights of the opera, but these do not quite achieve memorableness. But thanks to Bickley's tireless and generous performance, her arias were profoundly moving. For the rest of the narrative, things were more mundane, despite the rather highly coloured nature of what was unfolding.

It turns out that the real Jake is a 13 year old (treble Joseph Beesley) and he has invented a whole raft of internet characters with whom Brian interacts in the belief that these are real people. The characters are incarnated for us by singers (Mary Bevan as Rebecca, Jonathan McGovern as Jake, Heather Ship as Fiona and Robert Gleadow as Peter). It is only part of the way through the second act that Strawson (and we) realise that these characters are not real, but created by Jake. The actual transition to the realisation is handled well as Beesley initial doubles and duets with the characters before singing their roles in his treble voice alone. But for the first act and more, we seem to have no clues that these are not real characters.

It may be that Muhly has given musical clues to the fact the Rebecca et al are all constructs, but these are not apparent. Brian reacts to the characters as if they are real, but I feel that for the drama to work we need to experience more than just Brian's genuine belief. As it is, despite a cracking plot, the actually narrative bits feel too deliberate. Muhly's musical lines feel a bit pedestrian (perhaps deliberately so) and the main music interest appears to be in the orchestra. In fact, at times, the balance was such that the orchestra seemed to threaten to take over.

Bartlett Sher's production was nicely fluent, though a little too reliant on the constant shifting of furniture on and off stage. Michael Yeargan's set was relatively plain, simply flexible panels which moved and onto which the projections and animations from 59 Productions could be projected, thus meaning that the stage setting could change at an instant. For the narrative bits, things were realistic, but for the choral interludes the stage came alive with letters and numbers, matching the excitement of the music and giving a hint at what the production could have been.

The performances from all concerned were impressive and confident, with Bickley and Spence standing out. There were quite a lot of small roles which barely made a presence and during the choral interludes where were people playing named roles which did not really register at all.

Rumon Gamba conducted with enthusiasm, though he could have kept the orchestra a little more under control given the balance problems. Muhly has written for quite a big ensemble and the ENO Orchestra did him proud.

My gripes notwithstanding, this was a powerful evening of drama. Even if Muhly's music only showed us glimpses of what he is capable of, he and Lucas have created an enormously fluent piece which certainly deserves revisiting. The piece seemed to have attracted an audience slightly different to ENO's regular crowd, with younger people far more in evidence. I certainly hope that this encourages them to repeat the production, especially if Muhly can be tempted into revising it.

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