Psychopaths Haunt Chatrooms in Nico Muhly’s ‘Two Boys’: Review

Nico Muhly is tagged the “hottest composer on the planet’’ on his record label’s website. Whichever planet that is, it must be a pretty tepid one.

The 29-year-old American’s latest world premiere is “Two Boys’’ at English National Opera in London. A co-production with the Metropolitan Opera, it travels to New York in the 2013-14 season. Lucky New York.

Based on real events, Muhly’s opera tells the story of a 16-year-old British boy called Brian who gets swept up in a bizarre Internet world of mysterious psychopaths, girls in distress and secret agents. Via chatroom messages, a female spy orders Brian to stab his friend Jake and shout “I love you, bro’’ at the same time.

The real-life case was widely reported and a TV documentary was made about it, so I don’t think I’m spoiling things too much by revealing that it was actually the troubled friend Jake who was behind all the messages.

“Spoil’’ is a pretty hopeful verb here in any case. The libretto (by Craig Lucas) moves with such exasperating slowness, that if the audience hasn’t worked things out by Act II, then they’re probably asleep or sensibly diverting their mental energy elsewhere.

The opera is structured around the conventions of a TV cop drama. Investigating officer Anne Strawson (mezzo Susan Bickley) questions Brian after the stabbing, and his answers then prompt a series of flashbacks. If you’ve ever felt yourself screaming “chase the e-mail addresses’’ or “get the computer’’ at dim- witted televisual detectives, you’ll recognize the feeling of watching a plodding exposition that is always two steps behind.

Online Chats

In flashbacks, Brian is seen chatting online. His interlocutors all appear on stage just as he fondly imagines them to be.

Well, almost. Soprano Mary Bevan makes a convincing 16- year-old girl, Rebecca, and Robert Gleadow makes a lively oversexed psychopath, Peter. Adult baritone Jonathan McGovern, is bizarrely cast as a 13-year-old schoolboy. It’s one of many such “What? Who? How?’’ moments.

In real life, the two central boys were roughly the same age. In the opera, 16-year-old Brian is sung by Nicky Spence, a large tenor in his late twenties. The troubled friend who sends all the bizarre chatroom commands is sung by a small boy treble (Joseph Beesley).

When they meet, their scenes don’t create a sense of mutual, confused adolescent sexuality. They create something bordering on pedophilia. Can that really have been the intention?

Not British

Librettist Lucas, an American, fails to create a convincing atmosphere of Britishness for the story. Mentions of swimming pools and full-time gardeners are off track in referring to the U.K. urban middle classes.

All would be forgiven for some decent music. Instead, Muhly serves up a footling reworking of John Adams’s early minimalism in a score which rarely breaks out of a sclerotic andante- moderato. He overuses a technique of chugging unison bass instruments under flighty treble sounds too.

His vocal writing moves in a uniformly plodding one-note- per-syllable parlando which never brings any of the characters to life. It fails to conjure up love, or hatred, or despair, or any of the other emotions the story would seem to demand.

One of the characters is a dangerous female spy, for heaven’s sake. You’d think that should be a gift to a composer. Not for Muhly. Plod, plod, plod. She sounds the same as Brian’s boring dad.

Ear-Grabbing

The members of the cast throw themselves into it wholeheartedly. Bickley has a great voice with an ear-grabbing spin to it, and Nicky Spence sings attractively as Brian.

It doesn’t help. Bartlett Sher’s production is a fussy affair with large brown screens (for video projections) and clunkily realistic props. They all roll on and roll off into a black-box stage space with depressing frequency.

In a season which has already given us a hopeless “Simon Boccanegra,’’ an unfortunate “Midsummer Night’s Dream’’ and a dead-in-the-water “Lucrezia Borgia,’’ it’s yet another ENO disappointment.

Rating: *.

“Two Boys” runs though to July 8 at English National Opera, London Coliseum, St. Martin’s Lane, WC2N 4ES.

Information: +44-871-911-0200, http://www.eno.org/home.php

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

What the Stars Mean:
****      Excellent
***       Good
**        Average
*         Poor
(No stars)Worthless

To contact the writer on the story: Warwick Thompson, in London, at warwicktho@aol.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Beech at mbeech@bloomberg.net.

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