There are still three performances left of Nico Muhly’s Two Boys at English National Opera when I attend on American Independence Day. Muhly is a New Yorker and his opera a triumph.
It’s a tragedy of social independence. Mezzo Susan Bickley sings the middle-aged detective worried about dying alone and unloved, with anxiety audible in her brittle, breaking-point tone. Tenor Nicky Spence sings Brian, a secluded 16-year-old shunning his family, glued to his laptop, seeking and finding like-minded others on the internet. He veers between timidity and confidence depending on whether he is alone and glows with pleasure in the light of his screen. So do the anonymous chorus, alone in apartments or in regimented lines, separate from each other, staring into the illumination of their computers as if their light were truth.
This seemingly transfigured community contrasts with the grey church congregation chanting the words of the general confession but apparently no more able to achieve meaningful social intercourse than the internet fantasists.
A poignant touch is the difference between Brian’s fantasy correspondents and their real-life personae. The sexualised vamp Rebecca, alluringly sung by Mary Bevan, is really a sullen teenage mute. The beefy baritone Jake, a laid-back Jonathan McGovern, is actually a geeky treble in the church choir, sung with piercing flutey tone, sometimes a little sharp, by Joseph Beesley.
When Covent Garden adopted subtitles for foreign language libretti 20 years ago, it nullified ENO’s vernacular advantage. I wrote then that ENO should adopt them too, but it was another ten years before they agreed and here in Craig Lucas’ powerful libretto, they become an essential part of the drama. Chat room addicts thrive in a literary world, depicted by the subtitle display in original text and appropriate font. ‘Fill in the blanks,’ sings Brian as ‘fitb’appears above him. The babble of chorus text messages is a deliberately unreadable muddle – an aid to comprehension rendered incomprehensible – but all the more meaningful for that.
Muhly’s score opens with an unresolved chord of mystery. Bickley starts singing immediately, pacing the floor, gnawing at the riddle, her thoughts as melodic recitative. It’s a remarkably assured score for a first opera. The Brittensque orchestration includes gamelan sounds, notably at moments of pulse-quickening suspense of which there are several. For that reason alone this is a brilliant operatic debut.