Two Boys, Coliseum, London
Seven Angels, CBSO Centre, Birmingham
Das Rheingold, Town Hall, Leeds
ENO's latest commission has all the elements of a 21st-century production, but falls short of being a modern masterpiece
Sunday 26 June 2011
Launched amid a blizzard of tweets and viral videos, Two Boys hit town on Friday night.
Where the Royal Opera sold Anna Nicole on the beach-ball cleavage of its dead heroine, English National Opera has sold Two Boys on the wow-ness and now-ness of its composer, Nico Muhly. He's 29 years old. He writes film scores and Anglican motets. He likes pelicans, nose-to-tail eating, and speaks Icelandic. Is this relevant? Yes. Two Boys is all about the packaging of identity – as boy, girl, secret agent or sexual predator. Meanwhile, the real boys in the 2003 chatroom murder plot that inspired Muhly's opera remain anonymous, their identities protected by law.
Identities can be protected, but stories cannot: Boy A befriends Boy B online, assuming a variety of personalities to solicit love, sex and his own (unsuccessful) murder. Described by Muhly as "a valentine to Benjamin Britten", Two Boys aspires to zeitoper status, lacing a detective story narrative with choruses that mimic the electronic babel of 24/7 bullying, boredom, fatuities and porn. From a prodigious blogger, it's a negative view of the internet. Bartlett Sher's dourly handsome production intensifies the gloom, lighting a mass of adult and children's faces from a mass of lap-tops, together in addictive solitude.
Valentine passacaglias, evensong responses and winks to Bernard Herrmann aside, it's Prime Suspect with a soundtrack of semi-skimmed Glass. There's natural melodic facility in Muhly's writing, an ethereal gleam, though the strings and high woodwind teeter unsteadily over a heavy tuba, and conductor Rumon Gamba works hard to keep the ensemble tight.
Craig Lucas's libretto relates the story through DI Anne Strawson (Susan Bickley), a hard-bitten, soft-hearted policewoman with a bottle of Scotch in her desk. It's a clichéd role, with none of the fecund mixed motives the Governess enjoys in Turn of the Screw, but Bickley lends it dignity. Of more interest are the boys. Treble Joseph Beesley has unsettling poise, half-Miles, half-Quint, while tenor Nicky Spence frets and sweats and wanks heroically to a video-cam, seduced and menaced by the younger boy's fictional alter-egos Rebecca (Mary Bevan), Jake (Jonathan McGovern), Peter (Robert Gleadow) and Fiona (Heather Shipp). Too anodyne to chill like Britten, Muhly's operatic debut is a disquieting reminder of how vulnerable we are in the ether.
Ten years older than Muhly, Luke Bedford has been able to develop his craft slowly and quietly. Is his music operatic? Listening to the syntactically baffling Good Dream She Has, his 2008 cantata with libretto by Glyn Maxwell, I would say no. Yet Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and the Opera Group co-commissioned a two-act ecology parable from Bedford and Maxwell, again based on Paradise Lost.
Like Good Dream, Seven Angels speaks in Yoda-esque abstractions. Big pauses it has. The earthly personas adopted by Milton's supernaturals are cartoons of First World fecklessness: a King (Keel Watson) and Queen (Emma Selway) who squander the resources of their garden, egged on by the General (Owen Gilhooly) and Industrialist (Joseph Shovelton). Only Christopher Lemmings's Prince finds redemption, changing from glutton to environmentalist under the tender care of Rhona McKail's Waitress.
Though Bedford changes pace for the Act II banquet, his soundworld is dreary: a silt of low woodwind, a sour slap of piano, a pervasive smudge of divided violas. Even the steel-drum sounded damp. His vocal writing has more elasticity, with a touch of Herbert Howells, but this normally virtuosic ensemble sounded drab. John Fulljames's production recycles garden and desert from a ton of remaindered books. Dressing the cast in tie-dyed bodysuits only exacerbated the feeling of being infantilised. As Milton said, "They wearied I".
Honesty the best policy, Virtue the only nobility. The gilded homilies on the walls of Leeds Town Hall offered an interesting counterpoint to the first performance of Das Rheingold in Opera North's Ring Cycle project. The building of Cuthbert Brodrick's civic palace began in the year that Wagner set his prologue to music. Victorian rectitude has no purchase on shamed gods, wronged giants and embittered dwarves, yet Ring Cycles require as much industry as they do inspiration. Here, conductor Richard Farnes played project-manager, realising the architecture of Wagner's score with drive, dexterity and a dozen smarting anvils.
Das Rheingold establishes the key elements of the Ring: earth, water, fire and air. With a triptych of video screens, Peter Mumford's staging strives for accessibility, occasionally slipping into information-overload. Considering the heft of an enlarged orchestra, the delicacy was impressive: the tender oboe accompaniment to Yvonne Howard's melancholy Fricka, the sly bassoon beneath Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke's charismatic Loge, the bell-like blend of the Rhinemaidens (Jeni Bern, Jennifer Johnston, Sarah Castle).
With lighter voices, Wagner's text crackles and bites. Giselle Allen's Freia, Dervek Welton's Donner, Peter Wedd's Froh and Richard Roberts's Mime carried easily, while Nicholas Folwell's bull terrier of an Alberich bristled with fury and envy. As Fasolt and Fafner, James Creswell and Gregory Frank made Freia's abduction explicitly brutal. But was Michael Druiett's Wotan meant to be a stuffed shirt? Das Rheingold is the start of Wotan's downfall: it will be interesting to see how he develops when Opera North tackles Die Walküre.
'Two Boys' (0871 911 0200) to 8 Jul; 'Seven Angels' (0845 330 3501) Tue, Wed and touring; 'Das Rheingold' (0191 443 4661) today, and touring
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