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Friday 1 July 2011

Two Boys


It's bland

No just kidding, I'm way too addicted the clack of the keyboard to warrant not doing a proper review. In short: I didn't hate it, I didn't love it. Let me just say this first:

Nico Muhly. Just reading his blog we already get a clear picture of the man: charming, erudite, urbane, passionate and witty. The zest for life, quirky misspellings, extremely wide ranging musical tastes, camped up street language are all totally endearing. He is the current young composer du jour - there's always one - the darling of all modern music ensembles, posters, interviews and articles about him everywhere, and I don't envy him that role at all. Ten years ago it was Adés and one clearly felt that the guy didn't like the pressure: he's gone quiet in the past few years.

Nico Muhly is similar in some regards to Adés - the early developed technical facility and extraordinary ear for texture and colour is there (though Adés is quirkier, and more wideranging), each piece coming out sounding completely polished and very mature in its self assured character and personality. Muhly is the softer of the two, texturally, harmonically, gesturally - the idiom a sort of neo impressionistic post minimalism (it all sounds very "post", with huge pop influences), most similar to Adams, but without the pounding manfulness and brashness that that composer sometimes visits. Somewhere between Adams, orchestral Debussy and Ligeti then I would say. Choral music shows older influences - most obviously the renaissance masters lend a hand.

It's hard to say that the music isn't in some way very derivative, but the result is always immaculately finished and polished and unmistakably his. I'm reminded in technique, if not in sound, of Poulenc (sans the vulgarity), the wholesale borrowing from treasured musical influences (here more bashful), all thrown together (here blended) to make something with its own distinctive bouquet and aroma. Muhly's music often feels french, or at least conforms to the clichées that hang to french music - it's obsession with surface, colouring the note, a sussurus of textures, it's slightly sentimental beauty.

This is all true of Two Boys, Muhly's first opera, but where it fails is in the actual musical substance of the score - all the coruscating harmonics, string glissandos, piano ripples, simultaneous with muted sul pont viola pizzes, celestes and flutes in their lowest register can't save you over a two hour span of music if the basic musical ideas can't carry them, if the harmonic momentum of the piece evaporates every few bars, and the large scale structure of the score isn't palpable. The music, though usually lovely moment to moment, becomes wallpapery and aimless, and a pall of pastel shades, sepia, grey and beige begins to descend on the ear. Again one is reminded of Poulenc, who can sustain interest in the miniature, but fails to convince in the longer span. Is this partly the fault of Craig Lucas' libretto, which is very slow, predictable, and irritatingly shallow? I felt disappointed that a potentially interesting subject matter like this was hardly tackled with any depth at all - did any of the characters other than the perennially harassed detective Strawson have more than 1.5 dimensions? This is not at all a psychological opera, despite the psychologically driven plot, with characters barely able to express themselves or explore their inner feelings. In it's eschewal of normal opera tropes like the aria monologue, we're reduced to watching a musical episode of The Bill where we have to guess what the characters are thinking and feeling from their acting. But is this why we go to the opera? Is this really opera's realm of expertise, the place it can excel? The music doesn't give us enough of a clue with regards to emotion, with solo vocal lines rather unmemorable and characterless neither overtly dramatic, lyrical or even clearly in some sort of parlando convention, each line slipping past in it's decorous, inoffensive way.

Was the end of the opera meant to be a twist? I wonder if anyone other than the detective didn't see it coming. And what message is the piece trying to give us about the internet? Who is it for? What more general truths about our humanity and how we interact with each other are we meant to glean from it, now that chatrooms are hopelessly passé and we're all so self aware about the effect that the internet has on us? Or is it just blandly recounting the facts of the matter? Again these are problems with the libretto, not with the music. On the other hand, there are many, many operas with sub-par librettos that survive because of the beauty and impact of the music.

What does work well (rather predictably) is the music for the chorus, a genre which Muhly is well practised in - the flitting, buzzing chatter of the internet is evoked rather wonderfully by relentlessly overlapping vocal lines, though I think he's done the same thing better before in his Mothertongue. The production too is effective with it's shifting projections, the whole thing feeling low key and tasteful.

Basically then, I just felt bored and underwhelmed most of the time.

There seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding with so many contemporary composers of what opera is about. I'll let you into a secret: it's about voices. Fundamentally people go to hear voices. For me the first duty of the operatic composer is to provide voices with a vehicle to move, exalt, thrill. This can be done more effectively with excellent dramaturgy, superb acting and beautiful design, but the human voice is the foundation. Why do so many contemporary composers miss this? My guess is that they do not themselves adore the genre, though this is pure conjecture. I would make this criticism of this opera, and even more so of Turnage's Anna Nicole. Adés is also guilty in his two efforts though less so. (I could go on to others but wont). I love so much of these three's music, but all of them have produced operatic duds in the last few years, and all are guilty of this.

The cast was largely excellent, lots of young characters requiring young singers to do the roles and they mostly acquitted themselves very well. Susan Bickley as detective Anne Strawson is in some ways the central character who links to the audience, much like her role as the mother in Anna Nicole earlier this year. She's not enormously likable in her frumpy dourness, and I wish she had been pushed more into the hard drinking, fast talking, darkly humorous detective cliché that she was hovering on the edge of. Vocally it's not a pretty sound, though it's easy to understand, and the acting's certainly there. Nicky Spence plays Brian, the main dramatic protagonist and he sings well, though hardly suggesting youthfulness in the voice at all. The character is rather one dimensional (as I say, maybe one point five dimensions is fairer), a typical surly, sulky, wanky 16 year old, possibly depressingly true to the actual person, but maybe not the most interesting operatic character. Most remarkable perhaps is Joseph Beesley as Jake, the other of the Two Boys, his beautiful treble clear and well supported by Muhly's always sensitive orchestration. Mary Bevan's well sung Rebecca revealed a lovely soubrette voice.

I can imagine how painful and galling it must be for Muhly to read all these negative or indifferent reviews that the show has been getting, as I'm sure he's laboured over this for countless hours and poured his heart into it. (I know not all the reviews are negative). I blame the ENO and Met for jumping on these band wagon waves of hype that surround composers - which other modern composer would get their first opera as a commission from the Met? Which young composer could possibly deliver the goods? There is possibly nothing so challenging as writing an opera and yet it's requested before the composer has properly found his feet. The talent and energy are undoubtedly there with Muhly, but why put this pressure on so early? Large arts organisations have no consideration for letting young artists develop in their own time - you see it in every discipline.

A final bone of contention: the ENO's marketing. They're boasting about having got a million views on their (criminally irritating) Youtube video. First, it's just not at all funny, but second, it doesn't refer to opera in general even, let alone mention Two Boys even once. Will Self's rambling and largely irrelevant monologues, again make no reference to the opera. Did Muhly approve either of these? - both are so clumsy and so lacking in wit that it's impossible to discern his stamp. In contrast, at time of writing, the ENO's interview with the composer, has 740 views. What is the point of having highly visible marketing, if it makes no connection with the product you're trying to sell? The night I went there were well over a thousand empty seats. Two nights previously there had been 1350+ empty seats - less than half full. Both the ROH and the ENO put far too much money into digital media without having any clue how to actually make it pay for itself (witness the only marginally more relevant Anna Nicole Trailer, again with no reference to Turnage's music or opera in general at all). Anna Nicole though sold out at least (definitely not due to the trailer), one of the only shows to do that this year at the ROH. There's a sort of desperation to all this marketing though, and it reeks of organisations, venerable and serious, hopelessly lost, trying desperately to understand the changing world, hoping somehow to solve the issues of aging audiences by being as blandly similar to everything else on youtube, and throwing money that way until the problem is solved. And then it's smugly called innovative marketing. The solution is to get people to engage with the art form, let them experience the soul enriching, life affirming, soaring beauty of operatic art, not throw gimmicks at them in some desperate attempt to trick them into coming.

(P.S. I toyed with calling this post "two boys (no cups)", but thought it too irrelevant in the end, with no obvious referent in the opera... dying to make the joke work though somewhere)

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