See this show: Two Boys at the Metropolitan Opera

Nico Muhly and Craig Lucas's noirish tale of online seduction and murder thrusts the Met into the Internet age

Paul Appleby, sitting, and Sandra Piques Eddy in Two Boys.

Paul Appleby, sitting, and Sandra Piques Eddy in Two Boys. Photograph: Ken Howard

In the decade that I’ve been going to the opera, new work at the Met has been both exciting and frustrating. Three pieces in particular—The First Emperor, Doctor Atomic and The Enchanted Island—were hugely ambitious and chose subjects that were big enough for the medium, but suffered from static, humorless or repetitive libretti. The productions marshaled vast musical forces and had the best sets, lights and costumes that millions of dollars could buy, but too few resources had been put into the most basic consideration: storytelling.

That’s why the recent opening of Two Boys by composer Nico Muhly and librettist Craig Lucas (Prelude to a Kiss) is such a cause for celebration. Here is a full-length narrative grand opera that eagerly embraces elements from film noir, police procedurals and techno thrillers, in the service of a whodunit with disturbing sexual undercurrents, contemporary characters and social issues that resonate today. There are fleshed-out protagonists with backstories, tense dialogues and comic relief. In short, Lucas wrote a libretto that has the qualities of a solid play.

Whether the combination of his libretto and Muhly’s post-minimalist score has resulted in great opera has been a matter of debate among critics. Certainly, setting the piece in 2001 (two years before the true crime that inspired the story) risks making the tale seem predated, ages before ubiquitous smartphones, texting and social media. And you’d have to really isolate yourself from buzz and spoilers to be surprised by the plot twists that arrive in the second act.

The plot follows detective inspector Anne Strawson (Alice Coote) as she investigates the near-fatal stabbing of 13-year-old Jake. Her prime suspect is 16-year-old Brian (Paul Appleby), who maintains his innocence even as he tells Strawson about a bizarre web he was drawn into via Internet chatrooms. Initially attracted to flirty fellow teen Rebecca (Jennifer Zetlan), Brian meets her precocious brother, Jake (Christopher Bolduc); the family’s sexually predatory gardener, Peter (Keith Miller); and an aunt Fiona (Sandra Piques Eddy), who claims to be a spy with MI6.

Strawson initially doubts Brian’s tale but, presented with chatroom transcripts, starts to believe. In the second act, we watch as Brian’s corruption and confusion (sexual and moral) become complete, and he is eventually manipulated into stabbing Jake while speaking the words, "I love you, bro." Strawson cracks open the case when she notices an idiosyncratic spelling that crops up with different chatroom personas. But by then, the damage has been done. Two lives are wrecked, and Pandora’s box, so to speak, has been flung wide open. "A netherworld of cheerless cheer," Strawson, not a fan of computers, muses poetically. "Racing, rudderless boys, girls, gone for now."

Two Boys is engrossing and daringly lurid, if not always thrilling. A story told mostly in flashback, with characters sitting in their bedrooms tapping at computers, risks dramaturgical inertia. But director Bartlett Sher surrounds the production with so much visual and kinetic material (haunting, abstract video projections and dancers enacting tortuous, twisty moves), there’s hardly a dull moment. Then again, a few more arias would help us engage more deeply with the lead characters, and minor figures—one of Strawson's fellow police officers and her aged mother—seem unnecesarily underwritten.

Not being a music critic, I can’t analyze Muhly’s work with any musicological acumen, but in the score you will hear of echoes of Philip Glass’s arpeggiated scales, the brassy fanfares of John Adams, the astringent wistfulness of Britten, and even nerve-scraping touches of Herrmann and Penderecki. As other reviews have noted, Muhly’s choral passages—for scores of singers bathed in the blue light of their laptops—are the best of the evening.

Two Boys is the first project from the Met and Lincoln Center Theater’s New Works Program (launched in 2006) to receive its world premiere. I hope we don’t wait until 2020 for the second one. Yes, it takes time. Operas are large, slow-moving beasts, and not every subject has the heft and breadth to survive operatic treatment. Still, I hope the success of Two Boys will embolden the Met’s general manager Peter Gelb to keep commissioning operas for 21st-century audiences—ones that are narrative and theatrical, drawn from American history and culture. Stories are stories: If they work in movies, on TV, in plays, musicals, or even online, then stories can and should be told in opera.

Two Boys is at the Metropolitan Opera through November 14. Click here for tickets.

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Editor: Marley Lynch (@marleyasinbob)

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