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Muhly’s Internet Creep Gets Stabbed in Met Opera Premiere

Paul Appleby in Nico Muhly's
Paul Appleby in Nico Muhly's "Two Boys." Photographer: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera via Bloomberg

Oct. 23 (Bloomberg) -- Nico Muhly’s “Two Boys” -- about the dawn of the Internet and its squinting sociopaths -- finally opened on Monday night at the Metropolitan Opera.

Now we can stop writing stories about Muhly, and you can stop reading them.

I came with modest expectations, having attended Muhly’s last opera, “Dark Sisters” -- a fabulous title for a dull work about female Mormons. Can you imagine? Boring Mormons? Admittedly the Broadway musical and Mitt Romney set the bar rather high.

“Two Boys” has a tantalizing plot drawn from British headlines in 2001 about a teenager who stabbed another because he was told to do so -- as it turns out, by the same boy, a manipulative little creep who used chat rooms for his perverse seductions.

The judge in the case -- I looked this up, where else but on the Internet -- was gobsmacked by the case’s weirdness. “Skilled writers of fiction would struggle to conjure up a plot such as that which arises here,” he wrote.

And they do, specifically Craig Lucas, a provocative playwright whose libretto is so confusing and overpopulated I briefly lost track of all the many mothers.

Too Many Mommies

The show could sure drop the “Golden Girls” mom in the white slippers who shuffles in to convince her doting daughter, the female detective, that she’s a loser because she gave up her kid to pursue her career.

Seriously? After watching these revolting teens, who wouldn’t opt for a pack of beagles.

I’m not spoiling anything. Jake, the younger kid, is already on life support in the first scene as the story slowly unfolds with flashbacks and clues that are obvious to all but the detective -- sung by the divine Alice Coote in a frump-defining outfit.

When “Two Boys” was first seen at London’s English National Opera in June 2011, our critic Warwick Thompson squeezed out one star for a score that “rarely breaks out of a sclerotic andante-moderato.”

I gather the first act has changed since then, though perhaps not enough. Right at the start, the older Brian, who has just stabbed Jake, runs in crying: “He-elp! He-elp.” If you want to convey urgency, “Help” is a single, short syllable.

Radiant Hymns

There’s not much dramatic propulsion, though conductor David Robertson brings out the consistently interesting orchestration.

Muhly’s hymns are radiant -- and splendidly sung by the Met chorus -- yet there are few memorable phrases for a single character, never mind a whole aria.

And going forward, could the delete button be pushed on director Bartlett Sher and designer Michael Yeargan? Their Met collaborations have been modestly inspired since “The Barber of Seville.”

What a gloomy show. The towering walls sometimes pull apart for tantalizing projections of words fragmenting in cyberspace, but I never got the sense of laptops as portals into the world of wishful thinking, role-playing and dreams. With a little more imagination, how easily Jake’s personas could have floated free of the stage.

He’s played by a blonde baritone and a boy soprano, whose angelic look presents an unsettling contrast with the show’s one Brian, tenor Paul Appleby, a very mature-looking 16-year-old.

I suppose I should say their love barely speaks or sings or does much of anything before ending with that stabbing and a cringe-inducing exclamation: “I love you, bro.”

Different strokes for different folks: The audience, filled with music-world personalities, cheered young Muhly (he is 32) when he took his curtain call.

“Two Boys” is in repertoire until Nov. 14. Information: +1-212-362-6000; http://www.metoperafamily.org/metopera/index.aspx.

(Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor of Muse, the arts and entertainment section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

Muse highlights include Ryan Sutton on dining, Jeremy Gerard on theater, Daniel Akst on books.

To contact the writer on the story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for the story: Daniel Billy in New York at dbilly@bloomberg.net.

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