Two Boys, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, June 2011

New music, a new opera, and a thoroughly modern story: a teenage boy is stabbed in the heart, and another boy is arrested for the deed. If this sounds unpromising material, let me reassure you — I was riveted.

All photos by Richard Hubert Smith

The programme notes for new operas usually contain a detailed synopsis, so it’s refreshing to see one in which you’ve no idea what will happen. The complexity grows as the opera progresses, and we seem lost in a labyrinth of internet chat rooms with mysterious, needy and dangerous characters. Then there’s a detective who at the very beginning says, “Even senseless crime makes sense”, yet she too is puzzled. She lives with her elderly mother, who hobbles around on sticks, and tells her she should use more make-up, get her hair done, and lose some weight. In Act 2 the detective rushes home to her mother feeling guilty that she’s been so absent, working on the case, and sings of feeling she will one day die, “unsung, unloved and alone”. Her mother responds, “How do you think anyone gets what they want? They show what other people want”. And that’s it. Suddenly the detective sees how to unravel the whole mess.

A crucial scene in church, with Joseph Beesley and Nicky Spence

This is great theatre. But it’s also more than that. This is a wonderful opera — a co-production with the Metropolitan Opera in New York, who put together composer Nico Muhly and librettist Craig Lucas. The combination is inspired, and its realisation on stage by director Bartlett Sher, using projections and animation by Leo Warner, Mark Grimmer and Peter Stenhouse is quite remarkable. Their company did the wonderful projections and animations of pearl divers in the ENO’s new production of Pearl Fishers last year, but these are even better, and well served by Donald Holder’s lighting.

Anyone who has ever written out and delivered a talk or radio broadcast will know it’s essential to write it in spoken English, not written English. With an opera libretto this is far harder because the words will be sung to music, and we all know examples of operas, even by top rate composers where it doesn’t work well, yet Craig Lucas has done an exceptional job, and Nico Muhly’s music suits it perfectly. Internet chat rooms might seem a rather difficult thing to show the audience, particularly people like me who don’t even know what they are, but it’s all brilliantly done.

Heather Shipp, Nicky Spence and Susan Bickley in the foreground

We begin to get used to Brian as [A_Game], wonderfully sung by Nicky Spence, Rebecca and her brother Jake as [mindful16] and [GeekLand], both well portrayed by Mary Bevan and Jonathan McGovern, to say nothing of Aunt Fiona [agent_11e], strongly sung by Heather Shipp. Bass-baritone Robert Gleadow was powerfully threatening as Peter [peetr_69], Joseph Beesley was wonderful as the boy soprano, and above all there was Susan Bickley who gave a beautifully sung and superbly nuanced portrayal of the detective. She was well supported by a large cast of singers and other performers who worked extremely well together as a team. Conducting by Rumon Gamba brought out the details of Muhly’s intriguing music, reminding me of composers such as Britten, Adams and Glass, yet being unlike any of them.

The ENO does not recommend this opera for anyone under 16, but if you’re a parent or grandparent of teenagers, or even younger kids who use Facebook and internet chatrooms, this will make you think. There are some weird people out there, and we need artists of the calibre of Muhly and Lucas to create a theatrical event that not only brings us to think on these things, but entertains us into the bargain. If you compare the creators of this drama to some of the dullards who would allow dangerous nutcases to roam free — I’m thinking of a well known British case involving boys, which recently hit the news again — well … there’s no comparison. Life informs art, but this is a drama in which art can also inform life.

The production must cost an arm and a leg, presumably helped by being a joint project with the Met in New York, and we’re lucky to have the world premiere here in London. Don’t miss it.

Performances at the London Coliseum continue until July 8 — for details click here.

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