ENO and the New York Metropolitan Opera house have teamed up for the fifth time for a collaborative production. Two Boys is a brave attempt at a truly contemporary opera for our times. It is a stinker.
The plot (based on a true story) is about a boy called Jake who, through internet chat-rooms, drives another boy called Brian to kill him. Pretty unusual idea, and unlike anything else out there at the moment. Unfortunately the opera is a dud, because it lacks drama, depth, excitement and emotion. This was evident immediately as the music seemed to sit on itself and fall asleep. Composer Nico Muhly relies on an ultra conservative musical language based on dried-up minimalism, with ample helpings of alarmingly pedestrian vocal lines. Why was this an opera? Why was it two hours long? Even if it had to be written, wouldnt an electronic opera been more pertinent to a story so rooted in modern technology? What have bassoons and trombones got to do with chat-rooms?
The cast, including Susan Bickley, Nicky Spence and Jonathan McGovern, did what they could, but with a weak libretto from Craig Lucas (fishing for laughs with colloquialisms and cyber-jargon like OMG and C U 2 nite) there was very little to work with. The melodic lines could easily have been improvised by any slightly musical amateur. No light or shade seemed possible within the roles, and for that reason there could be no hint of empathy with any of the characters, no emotional investment, and no identification with the situation.
Having an opera based on a murder that was organised via internet chat-rooms is an original conceit, but it wasnt dealt with in anything like a physically dramatic way. Nor was there any sense of a deliberate lack of physicality. Most of the time somebody or other was just shouting Brian! at a laptop. Endless quantities of text-speak were projected, and there was use of CCTV footage, to distract from the tedium. Scenic and costume decisions were pretty perfunctory and functional.
It was impossible to tell how the orchestra played under conductor Rumon Gamba since the orchestration was far from masterful, inventive, or even resourceful.
If the only brief for this piece was to produce a sub-John Adams minimalist opera with the novelty of references to current pre-pubescent terminology then it was a success.