Saturday, 25 June 2011

Two Boys, ENO

The ENO company machine is purring like a high-marque luxury car at the moment: consistent, uncontroversial, impressive. Nico Muhly's Two Boys, here receiving its premiere at ENO ahead of further performances at the Metropolitan Opera, New York is guaranteed a strong showing. The opera (written with librettist Craig Lucas) is a fairly straightforward thriller couched within the intrigue and vernacular of internet-based social networking. It's an issue with currency, with two major feature films concerning the phenomenon of Facebook (The Social Network and Catfish) released within the last year. The story is a juxtaposition of two perspectives. The first is that of a detective investigating an attempted murder. The second is the that of her chief suspect, Brian, whose own story is told in interpolated flashback. Over the duration of the opera it emerges that the 16-year-old Brian has been drawn into friendship with various characters via a networking site (incidentally, Facebook is neither named nor implied), the obscured outcome of which has something to do with a young boy recovering in a hospital bed.

And, to be honest, that's about it. The plot and its nicely handled twist will be familiar to anyone who has watched high quality procedural thrillers on British television. What I missed was the psychological chicanery of genuine operatic drama. Admittedly, Muhly-Clucas do scrutinise the parallel, removed life of the rather embittered detective Strawson (Jane Tennison?), especially in her a second act aria 'Unsung, alone and unloved'. This came in the form of existential expressionism, rather like 'Batter My Heart' from the idiomatically resonant John Adams' Doctor Atomic.

Elsewhere though opportunities came and were passed over. Brian's parents have their own social networking medium - the church - but despite a dedicated scene, this relationship is not investigated. Instead of a Grimesian, offstage Greek chorus we have a stand-alone liturgical sequence which is effective staging punctuation but has no dramatic weight. The motivation of the dialogue and exchanges via the 'web chat' (for want to a better term) between characters is also poorly worked through. The naughtiness of the webcam version of phone sex has its own inherent humour but the dramatic contorting of that by subsequent characters was obscured to me. Moreover, the dreadful phenomenon of internet suicide support groups is sung about in slogan form from character to chorus but not chewed over in any detail.

The enterprise reminded me of A Dog's Heart, the Complicite/McBurney/Raskatov collaboration earlier in the season. There as here, one was aware of the integration of composition and production. Yet there's a also a sense - particularly in Muhly-Clucas - of an abdication of responsibility for the drama. I felt that Clucas' prosaic text sat waiting to be brought alive, only to find itself underscored rather than set by Muhly. The video projections of 59 Productions were almost the most inventive partner in their intermittent contributions, particularly in the swirling helix-matrix abstractions that drew skeletal CGI characters out of maps of the internet-using diaspora. Identity is one thing that the production cannot fail to address and that it does with some subtlety, leaving the chorus as an uncannily dispersed net of individuals and setting up a single coup in which Muhly's sense of orchestration is at its sharpest. It's still not as gripping (nor as operatic) as Catfish nor has the highly nuanced levels of Sorkin/Fincher's eloquent allegory (The Social Network) though. By the end of the piece I felt that Muhly-Clucas had tried something interesting, even different - to dramatically invert the familiar spectre of the sex pest posing as the youthful innocent online - but had relinquished their conclusions to a white noise of pathos.

Singing the roles principal roles, Susan Bickley continues her extended run of form as Strawson. I felt that, in the space, the sound was missing some body but the characterisation and annunciation were top notch, second only to the fine singing of Nicky Spence as Brian. His entry is a scene or two into the opera and immediately lifts the experience, with ringing, muscular singing, registering easily over the full orchestra. His manic, adolescent brow-beating (and not just his brow, of course) is expertly judged. Rebecca and Fiona, the two women who appear only as apparitions of the internet are beautifully sung by Mary Bevan and Heather Shipp (the latter dusting off my favourable memory of her functional roles in the Royal Opera's Lulu). Perhaps the biggest star of the evening though, creeping in under the radar of the theatre of the piece was the 'boy soprano' of Joseph Beesley. Confident and secure musically and on stage in some very demanding situations Beesley also sang beautifully, not least in the final tableau, another nicely scored corner from Muhly. There were a number of other roles. As I've suggested some key ones felt underwritten. I felt that Valerie Reid worked hard as the detective's mother, as did Rebecca Stockland and Paul Napier-Burrows making the most of their isolated sequences as Brian's parents.

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