The closed-circuit television footage that beckoned audiences into Monday’s Metropolitan Opera premiere of “Two Boys,” an opera by Nico Muhly, CC ’03, instantly asserted the work’s novelty. The piece, which had its world premiere in 2011, follows detective Anne Strawson’s pursuit of answers after 13-year-old Jake is brutally stabbed to death. In her search for answers, Strawson interrogates the case’s primary suspect, Brian, whose defense propels her into the murky depths of cyberspace.
Set in early 2001, the plot unfolds in a time when the Internet was neither ubiquitous nor widely understood; Strawson doesn’t even own a computer. Like a gripping crime drama, the gradually unfolding plot provides constant intrigue and keeps the audience riveted. But the opera constructs such an enthralling mystery that the conclusion is terribly underwhelming. And, like a television drama, the opera must rely on gimmicky plot devices to bring Strawson to the solution.
To capture the uncertain atmosphere of “Two Boys,” Muhly provides a textured soundscape that is rich with distinct orchestral colors and vividly underscores the story’s darkness. The composer’s writing for principal characters sits comfortably in his singers’ voices, and although this music is often beautifully expressive, it only rarely allows for exciting displays of vocal virtuosity.
Undoubtedly, the strongest moments come from Muhly’s brilliant ensemble writing. Expertly performed by the Metropolitan Opera chorus, the work’s many choral passages depict the sounds of the Internet. By splitting the chorus into subsections and having each group repeat short phrases (“Hey!” or “U there?”), the composer achieves a fascinating texture of simultaneous but harmonious conversations.
Fortunately, “Two Boys” features a vocally impressive cast. As the driven detective Anne Strawson, mezzo-soprano Alice Coote sings with warm tones and lyric phrasing. This character is the most fascinating in the opera, since she wrestles with her past choices and personal doubts while also trying to find answers. Coote skillfully executes this performance with nuance and drama.
As the commonplace teen who stands accused of a violent crime, tenor Paul Appleby successfully brings a bright, focused tone and penetrating urgency to his role. With long, greasy hair, poor posture, and an attitude of cultivated disinterest, Appleby is quite convincing as the hopelessly unaware Brian. And in his Met debut performance, boy soprano Andrew Pulver as Jake, offers dulcet tones that nicely contrasts Appleby’s vibrant intensity.
An ensemble of strong singers capably performs a variety of smaller roles. Two notable standouts are soprano Jennifer Zetlan as Rebecca, Brian’s sweet-singing web companion, and Anne’s endearing mother, played by Judith Forst.
Famed Broadway director Bartlett Sher and his creative collaborators intelligently tackle the challenges of presenting a piece set in cyberspace. Simple gray walls are transformed with evocative projections and visually striking abstract animations. The production regularly includes huge chat screens that reinforce the reality of the online world.
Despite a somewhat disappointing conclusion, “Two Boys” will keep you guessing throughout the evening. More importantly, the opera features well-composed vocal writing and arresting music for the chorus. Columbia students interested in relevant, thought-provoking theater will find much to enjoy in “Two Boys.”
One piece of advice: Don’t read the program notes ahead of time. The opera is far more fascinating when you allow yourself to experience it completely unaware.
Performances of “Two Boys” run through Nov. 14 at the Metropolitan Opera. Tickets begin at $25.