Saturday, 25 June 2011

Nico Muhly, Two Boys (world premiere), English National Opera, 24 June 2011

The Coliseum

DI Anne Strawson – Susan Bickley
Brian – Nicky Spence
Rebecca – Mary Bevan
Fiona – Heather Shipp
Anne’s mother – Valerie Reid
Jake – Jonathan McGovern
Peter – Robert Gleadow
Cynthia – Anne-Clare Monk
Doctor – Michael Burke
Brian’s mother – Rebecca Stockland
Brian’s father – Paul Napier-Burrows
Liam, detective constable – Philip Daggett
American suburban mother 1 – Clare Mitcher
American suburban mother 2 – Claire Pendleton
American suburban girl – Eleanor Burke
Celebrant – Geraint Hylton
American Congressman – Anton Rich
American congressional page – Peter Kirk

Bartlett Sher (director)
Michael Yeargan (set designs)
Catherine Zuber (costumes)
Donald Holder (lighting)

Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Martin Merry)
Orchestra of the English National Opera
Rumon Gamba (conductor)

DI Anne Strawson (Susan Bickley)
Images: Richard Hubert Smith

A huge publicity drive had been lavished upon this, the premiere of Nico Muhly’s Two Boys, not least a Youtube video with at best a tenuous connection to the opera. With a libretto written by Craig Lucas, it is described as ‘a spellbinding tale of intrigue and attempted murder, loosely inspired by an incredible but true story’. Whatever the truth or otherwise, it is, I am afraid an incredible but dull story, considerably less compelling than your average, or even below-average episode of The Bill, which might at least possess a certain degree of competence in its construction. A boy sitting at home, Brian, chats to another, younger boy, Jake, the latter inventing a number of online personas: Rebecca, Fiona, Peter, an older Jake. A preposterous yet uninvolving scheme is constructed in which those personas persuade Brian to kill (the real) Jake. The motivation seems to be – though my accompanying friend thought I was reading too much into it – Jake’s desire to be remembered for the beauty of his treble voice, and therefore to die before it breaks: implausible and creepy, but alas, not in an interesting way, since nothing is developed. A spot of online masturbation is presumably intended to provoke controversy, or at least to show how ‘with it’ the story is; it does not even prove embarrassing, merely dull. DI Anne Strawson investigates by reading through the Internet transcripts. That is about it. There are other characters, but they merely seemed present for the sake of creating more characters. The sub-plot concerning Anne’s mother is especially hapless. An ailing woman who lives with the detective is presumably intended to give some insight into the latter’s character. It might have worked in an episode of a television detective series, but here seems irrelevant in the extreme, having no discernible connection with the rest of the action. I am at a loss when it comes to some of the supporting characters lower down the cast list: presumably they appear, but it is unclear when or how. Since characterisation is nil, it is difficult to tell.

Rebecca (Mary Bevan) and Brian (Nicky Spence)
Moreover, the libretto does not seem able to work out where the action is taking place; delivery of the words consequently veers uncomfortably across both sides of the Atlantic. One minute the inspector laments her inability to contact MI5, the next we are plunged into a host of Americanisms. Perhaps some point is being made; if so, it went over my head. ‘Dunno’ and the like certainly do not sound well when sung in the Queen’s English. The text-message-speak is particularly odd, entirely dependent upon the titles, since correct English is sung. One sees ‘omg’ but hears ‘Oh my God!’ It comes across not as a clever navigation between worlds, if that were intended, but as confused flailing. And do we really believe that any of us beyond teenage years can convincingly imitate whatever argot might be current? Attempts seemed doomed to resemble the stereotypical trendy vicar. The Internet and its world of potential and multiple identities ought to offer many possibilities for a libretto, but the choice of subject matter is not enough. A chorus of Internet users is not a bad idea, at all, but it is a starting point that the music never even begins to develop, the score, whether for individual voices, chorus, or ensemble, sounding effortfully churned out. We need another ten minutes here, to fill out a round of pointless questioning: select option five and out comes the anonymous music.

Chorus of Internet users, Brian
For Muhly’s music is the real problem. I had thought that Donizetti hit rock bottom with respect to operatic composition until hearing this score. It does not even have the courage to become truly unbearable, in the manner of Muhly’s mentor, Philip Glass. What tends to happen is that a chord, apparently chosen at random, is repeated a good few times, a little decoration is applied above, welcome is outstayed, and then another chord is chosen. The vocal writing is aimless; it would have sounded neither better nor worse if turned upside down or back to front. (Indeed, a spot of retrograde inversion, however unmotivated, might have added slight interest.) At best, it sounds like music that would have been rejected for The Bill. There is a real craft, after all, to writing commercial music. This, however, comes across as music by formula, and I do not mean that in Stockhausen’s sense; it is more akin to a musical representation of a dot-to-dot colouring book. There has to be some way to fill in the musical gaps, though the drama, such as it was, would have been less tedious without the music. Occasional loud notes for the tuba appear to no discernible purpose; other ‘dramatic colour’ is provided by repeated drum strokes, repeated too often before something else was tried. Perhaps the most jarring moment – I use the term relatively, given the glacial rate of harmonic change – comes with an apparent attempt at gravity, when a progression straight out of the Enigma Variations arrives and re-arrives, and re-arrives…

We are told of Muhly’s love for Anglican church music. It is odd, then, that the faux versicles and responses from a church scene – which seems to be there less for any dramatic reason than because the composer presumably wanted to write some such music – are less distinguished than even the common-garden variety a parish church might offer for a Thursday Evensong in November. An average member of a choral foundation might at least have proffered more ‘interesting’ harmony. I do not exaggerate when I say that I have seen far better writing amongst undergraduate compositional exercises I have idly leafed through. Indeed, the whole enterprise resembled nothing more than an A-level music and drama collaboration. The staging, save for Anne's peculiar habit of interviewing her suspect at considerable distance, was perfectly adequate: expensive-looking in terms of some of its designs, yet with nothing to frighten away the horses.

Jake (Joseph Beesley) and Brian
A highly talented cast was utterly wasted. Susan Bickley gave a typically strong performance as the detective. Nicky Spence displayed a fine, musical tenor line as Brian, though – and this is not his fault at all – the age gap between him and Jake seemed too wide. In the latter role, Joseph Beesley showed a far greater command of the operatic stage than most trebles: his was an excellent performance indeed. Mary Bevan and Jonathan McGovern did what they could with two of Jake’s personas: more should definitely be heard from both of these fine voices. The same could be said, yet more strongly still, of Robert Gleadow’s virile bass-baritone, here expended upon the make-believe villain, Peter. The orchestra sometimes sounded half-hearted: my only surprise is that as much as half a heart could be mustered for such a score.

When one thinks of the plethora of highly talented young composers at large – and multiplies it considerably, given the number of whom one will not have heard – this seems a wasted opportunity. I can think of a good few whom I know personally, let alone those whose work I know, who would certainly have presented more interesting scores. Marketing, alas, seems to have been all on this occasion, for Muhly has some fashionable backers in New York, whose Metropolitan Opera is co-producing the work. Perhaps, though, there is a lesson to be learned. An experience such as this helps one appreciate anew the level of craftsmanship present even in relatively undistinguished operas, let alone in fine but flawed works or masterpieces. Few operas will so much as approach Tristan or Così, but most will have considerably more to offer than Two Boys.


Anonymous said...

Mark, another very well written, detailed and intriguing review.
The main question we have to raise is how powerful backers can create a buzz about a composer to the detriment of quality and true worth.
Muhly is clearly an interesting chap and very media friendly but is he really ready for a piece of work of that scale? When it comes to the Met (and their notorious big bucks board of directors) that is an opera house clearly happy to back whoever their rich benefactors see fit. A much different model from the European paradigm. The ENO going to bed with the Met clearly has opened itself to attacks of squandering resources to something obviously fashionable and of questionable value.
The world of opera is supposed to be one antidote to the ridiculous world of pop music and overnight celebrity, but it seems this doesn't bode well for any lovers of the art form who are bombarded by fashionable baby composers and their nauseating marketing machine.

Mark Berry said...

Thank you! Sometimes one loses heart, but then a magnificent performance such as that I heard precisely a week before at the Cité de la musique in Paris can come along, reminding one that contemporary music can and should be the most exciting musical experience there is. Three works from different composers, the oldest from 2006, one receiving a world premiere: all of them enthralling and receiving fiercely committed performances. An opera by any of those composers - Ivan Fedele, Johannes Maria Staud, and Bruno Mantovani - would have been an exciting prospect. Indeed, Mantovani's 'Akhmatova' received its premiere at the Bastille earlier this year and proved a fine addition to the repertory. ENO's plans next year, though, seem more promising, or rather some of them do: British premieres of works by Wolfgang Rihm and Detlev Glanert. One other piece at the end of the season can probably be given a miss...

Henry Holland said...

I had thought that Donizetti hit rock bottom with respect to operatic composition until hearing this score.

Bravo. [sustained applause]

It does not even have the courage to become truly unbearable, in the manner of Muhly’s mentor, Philip Glass.

Bravo. [raucous curtain-call applause]

I'm baffled why Nico Muhly's music is taken seriously in "classical" circles. I've heard a good chunk of it and it sounds like chill-out pop music to me. Nothing adventurous harmonically or rhythmically, he hasn't show any ability to sustain a musical argument over a long time-span, which is why his music is perfect for soundtracks (nothing wrong with that at all, soundtrack writing is a very specific skill).

As for operas ENO could be doing, how about Birtwistle's wonderful The Second Mrs. Kong or The Last Supper both of which are waiting for their London staged premieres? I like Bruno Mantovani's L'autre cote, I look forward to hearing his new one. I'd also add Mathias Pintchers's L'espace dernier, a terrific piece done a few years ago in Frankfurt (concert).

Doundou Tchil said...

Unfortunately, most of Muhly's other music is pretty derivative too. The secret to sucess seems now to be to create a wave on the internet where everyone assumes everrtyone else knows what they're talking about, and this self perpr]etuates. Thern get liots of influential friends like Alex Ross and the Big Money muscle of the Met. As long as the window dressing is good, product doiesn't matter. So many wannabe classical composers now like Rufus Wainwright, Damon Albarn etc so there's clearly a niche. BUt Wainwright, Albarn &co esdtablished a track record writing original music in their own genre beforehand.

Mark Berry said...

Thank you, Henry! I know: the absence of Birtwistle, to my mind the greatest English opera composer since Purcell, is as baffling as it is plain wrong. Stage a Birtwistle opera and it is an event to which audiences flock, because they want something substantial and challenging, not because they want a watered-down version of a television detective show. 'The Minotaur' completely sold out at Covent Garden. Nor can I see any reason why we should be parochial: why don't we want the best opera, wherever it comes from? It is heartening, therefore, as I said, to see ENO staging Rihm and Glanert next year, though Mantovani would have been perhaps even more welcome, given that few in London will have heard a note of his.

As for hype, take a look at this interview and its fawning, nauseating presentation by a newspaper hardly noted for its interest in contemporary or any other music: The ludicrous references to Boulez and to Mélisande say it all really. Anyone would think there had never been a gay composer before, nor even a gay musician: the non-issue, at least in this case, is brought up time and time again, to no particular end. It seems, rather, just to be a marketing point: of 'quirkiness', or some such. With Britten, it matters, deeply; it certainly does with Tchaikovsky, Henze, Vivier, and many others, including, I should argue, Schubert; here, however, there appears to be no 'deeply', merely a 'lifestyle' product. As Doundou Tchil says, it is all about sales, and some people, it seems, will buy anything.

SS said...

I won't be seeing this opera, but can believe your criticism is justified. I've listened to a few of his works before and found them similarly uninspired.

A footnote to your people are gullible comment: but not, it appears, when it comes to buying tickets for this opera. I received an ENO email this afternoon offering £15 stalls tickets to AAA members. Presumably this means total commercial failure (?). Perhaps I'm being too cynical. I don't recall an AAA offer being so generous.

Mark Berry said...

SS: you are certainly not the first person from whom I have heard who has been offered £15 in the stalls. Maybe ENO is just feeling generous... It is pretty bad, though, if so brazenly a commercial work performs so disappointingly in commercial terms. Birtwistle, even Ferneyhough, will sell, especially with intelligent presentation; if all the Internet/Soho hype cannot sell this, it does not look good.

Andrew said...

Didn't think it was as bad as you did, Mark, but still thought it was twice the length it needed to be. To follow on from SS's comment, there were lots of free stalls tickets (which is why I was there) being given away for the performance I was at last night, which is a worrying sign, whatever one thinks of the piece.