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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Opera Review: Boot Up, Log In, Burn Out

The Met unveils Nico Muhly's Two Boys.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
You're sitting too close: Paul Appleby as Brian in Nico Muhly's Two Boys.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2013 The Metropolitan Opera.
The Metropolitan Opera leaps squarely into the 21st century with the North American premiere of  Two Boys, the company's first commission (and the first opera) from the pen of contemporary American composer Nico Muhly. The opera (which premiered at the English National Opera in 2011) bowed on Monday night at the Metropolitan Opera House. It shines a light into the dark chat rooms of the early Internet, and the ultimately fatal relationship between the cyberspace-obsessed title characters.

Writing a contemporary opera about technology that is now more than a decade out of date is a daunting proposition, but one that Mr. Muhly meets with considerable skill. His model is his mentor Philip Glass, and one can hear the free appropriation of that older composer's style: endless repeating arpeggios, exotic tuned percussion and "busy" figurations in the strings representing the flow of data from place to place. David Robertson manages the enormous ensemble with command over ebb and flow--this modern, largely inoffensive music is here in the very best of hands.

If Two Boys has a weakness it is the libretto of Craig Lucas, burdened with the task of expressing and explaining the complex dance of words across the screen to the pre-Internet generation. The Met Titles help, synced with the text of these conversations as they are digitally projected behind the actors. It is odd to hear phrases like "LOL," "OMG" and "MYBE" set to music. Other lines ("I'm a BAD detective!") are unintentionally hilarious and may have a future in the world of memes. A bigger problem is the clumsy unfolding of the plot--with twists and tropes that might be obvious to anyone who's ever been in a failed Internet-based relationship. (And no, we're not giving away the story in this review. Go see the opera.)

The emotional core of this show is the young Juilliard product Paul Appleby, affecting and sweet-voiced as the 16-year-old Brian. This is potentially a career-making performance for Mr. Appleby in his first outing as primo tenore at the Met. Mr. Appleby's pleasing tenor and acting ability enables him to deliver a complex performance. Confused (as many teenagers are) about his still-developing sexuality, Brian falls down the digital rabbit hole, lured by the combination of readily available simulations of friendship, sex and even domination.

Leaping after him is Alice--in this case mezzo-soprano Alice Coote. She plays Anne Strawson, the police detective who slowly learns the complex codes and abbreviations used in this new environment, slowly reconstructing the conversations that led to Brian stabbing his 13-year-old friend Jake. Her investigation is the motor that drives Two Boys. Much of the story is told to her in flashback by Brian in a narrative that recalls films like The Usual Suspects. This anecdotal structure doesn't leave Ms. Coote with much room to develop her character, but she is most effective and sings the long repetitive vocal lines beautifully.

The supporting cast is strong. Jennifer Zetlan is Rebecca, a teasing girl who serves as the "white rabbit" that leads Brian into this digital Wonderland. Keith Miller is the menacing Peter, a gruff, dangerous figure into rape, murder and kinky sex. Sandra Piques Eddy is most effective as Fiona, whose manipulations of Brian may or may not be driven by the British counterintelligence bureau M.I.5. Finally, boy treble Andrew Pulver makes a tremendous debut as Jake, singing with a chilling, precise clarity in the opera's climactic scenes.

With its oppressive mix of blacks, grays and sliding, monolithic walls doubled as projection surfaces, Michael Yeargan's sets might be mistaken for Patrice Chéreau's 2009 Met staging of From The House of the Dead. Director Bartlett Sher does an effective job of managing onstage traffic and the non-linear sequence of unfortunate events, letting the complex plot spin itself out with minimal stylistic interference. Choreographer Hoshef Shecter (in his Met debut) uses stylized dance to convey the flow of bits and bytes from server to server--although the gyrating troupe becomes a distraction in the opera's second act.

The chat-room and "cyberspace" projections are by 59 Productions--although certain on-screen details projected on the rear wall of the Met's mega-stage are invisible from the upper levels of the theater. With its edgy, cinematic story, Two Boys would be ideal for the Met's Live in HD series. Opera-goers around the globe will have to wait and see if the Met gives the show a revival. Until then, tickets for this rather brilliant new opera are currently available.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.