This season, the Metropolitan Opera gave Two Boys, an opera composed by Nico Muhly, its United States preview. The opera, based on a true court case, is set in 2001, in an English industrial city. The plot revolves around a detective, Anne Strawson, who was portrayed by Alice Coote, one of my personal favorites. Detective Strawson investigates sixteen-year-old Brian, sung amazingly well by Paul Appleby, for the murder of a thirteen-year-old boy named Jake, sung by the boy soprano Andrew Pulver. Brian argues his innocence, saying a spy told him to do it. In the end, Strawson uncovers Jakes many internet aliases, used to manipulate Brain in an age before people knew everyone on the internet lies. Jakes alias all appear in the opera; Jennifer Zetlan sings Rebecca, a fake girl, interested in Brian. Jake recreates himself online as Jake, a hunky boy, sung by Christopher Bolduc, Sandra Piques Eddy sings “Aunt”/Spy Fiona, and the malicious gardner is sung by Keith Miller. While Detective Strawson tries to grasp the appeal and structure, or lack there of, in the world of the internet, she also deals with her lack of personal life, her aging mother, and frets over the possible fate of the child she gave up for adoption sixteen years ago.
First off, the talent of the cast was remarkable. Alice Coote was flawless, her movements were a little “pants role”, or masculine, but it fit a single woman, focused solely on her career. Her low voice was warm, and I was actually surprised at how easy and full her top notes were. Paul Appleby did a great job of acting like a vulnerable, confused, teenage boy, and he has an amazing, lyric, tenor voice which fits Nico Muhlys opera, and general musical style, perfectly. Nico Muhly set Jake as a boy soprano, just one of the many ways his opera was clearly inspired by Britten. Most reviews praise Andrew Pulver. I really can not agree. Benjamin Britten wrote many roles for young boys in his operas during an age when boys were going through puberty later, and therefore could reach a vocal excellence while still having a high voice. Today, boys go through puberty earlier, literally ruining boy choirs around the world. I argue this biological shift renders these boy roles in opera almost un-singable, as well. Did Andrew Pulver do a great job considering the fact that he is 11 or 12 and singing a pretty big role on the Met Stage? Yes. But this role should never have been written in a day and age where boy sopranos can no longer properly exist. It did not sound great, Pulver cracked several times, and his tone was reedy. Jennifer Zetlan, as the fake Rebecca, was my favorite vocally. She captured her young, but creepy role, very well. Her voice was light, and sweet, but carried very well. I was also very impressed with Sandra Piques Eddy as the Spy. She was part of one of the most beautiful musical moments in the opera, and did a magnificent job altering her tone color as was necessary for dramatic affect, and managed to float above a brass choir with ease. Caitlyn Lynch, a Michigan graduate, and wife of Johnny Lasch, was amazing as well, with some of the most beautiful music in the opera. The mothers lack of awareness about what her children were up to was downright Vicodin inspired, and Lynch played it off convincingly.
Of course, none of this production would have been possible without Nico Muhly as the composer. Nico Muhly is undeniably one of my favorite composers. It’s not just his blend of electronic music with live music, or beautiful melodies, or excellent choral writing, which appeals to me. Nico Muhly is the King of collaboration with indie artists, and has a serious cool factor about him, which happens when someone is friends with people like Issac Mizrahi. His collaborative spirit may have been what inspired a production reminiscent of a Peter Sellars/John Adams collaboration, using modern dancers and sparse, but technologically impressive sets to illustrate the vast internet. Nico Muhly appeals to the young, so the crowd at the Met Opera was very different than usual (lets just say I was not the only one wearing a crop top). However, the crowd was incredibly small, which made me lose hope in the Met Opera’s ability to premiere operas that are not already successful. Other venues, like the recently deceased NYCO, were pros at drawing crowds to premieres. The Met just can not bring that audience. The opera was not flawless. The first act had a lack of connection between the singers, text, and melodic content in the orchestra, although it contained some beautiful acapella, choral moments. The second act was beautiful, although a little chamber opera feeling, a weird character for a composer to take on when he is composing for one of the biggest houses. The awesomest moment was when Detective Strawson figures out Jake created all his aliases. Spy Fiona is singing over a brass choir, but her voice gradually becomes more straight tone, and colder, until Jake sings with her in a duet as the strings slowly join the brass, and Fiona drops out of the musical texture. This use of voice color and unique instrumentation made a significant emotional impact on me, and really demonstrated Muhlys sophistication as a composer.