Reality blurred by fantasy, teen sexuality, Internet chatrooms, a murky murder plot — it’s not a new HBO drama, it’s the disquieting and absorbing first opera from composer Nico Muhly. The John Adams-esque minimalism-meets-romanticism score of “Two Boys” has immediate appeal, rare in new opera, but for all the smart handling of contempo themes, the thing it most lacks is a unique voice. That said, despite a disappointingly creaky production by Bartlett Sher, it’s hard to think of another opera debut so promising.
Commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera as part of its program matching opera creatives with legit-world collaborators, “Two Boys,” bound for the Met’s 2013-14 season, is loosely based on a true crime that happened in Manchester in 2003.
Everything revolves around Brian (Nicky Spence), a 15-year-old who has been arrested. Having lived almost exclusively on the Internet in his bedroom, he claims to have been lured into a bizarre conspiracy and, ultimately, a murder. All of this is uncovered — rather too slowly — by a tired police detective Anne Strawson (tireless Susan Bickley; think the Tyne Daly half of “Cagney and Lacey”) who is skeptical of Brian’s story of being the victim but concedes that “even the most senseless crimes sometime make sense.”
Using the method beloved of police procedurals, playwright Craig Lucas’ libretto has Brian recounting events under questioning. The downside of this is the opera’s reliance upon only intermittently engaging expositional scenes. We watch Brian meet flirtatious Rebecca (Mary Bevan) in a chatroom, but just as tension between them begins to rise, she is suddenly murdered, possibly by the British Security Services MI5, leaving behind her vulnerable brother Jake (Jonathan McGovern).
The more bizarre Brian’s story grows, the more intrigued Anne becomes. In the swifter-paced, more dramatic second act, the piece moves more strongly into drama which is confrontational both in terms of action and its impact on audiences who are presented with scenes of masturbation and unconventional sexual longing.
In the work’s huge plot twist, both Anne and the audience realize that the facelessness of Internet “personal connection” allows true identity can be completely disguised to massively manipulative effect. And if that sounds vague, it’s because it is to Lucas’ credit that he and Muhly have arguably fashioned the first opera in which you do not wish to give away the plot. Better yet, the climactic revelation of identity is dramatized musically with the perpetrator’s twin identities sung by two singers whose voices finally overlap.
That none of the singers have much difficulty being audible attests to Muhly’s handling of a large orchestra. There a prevailing somber sonority to his colorful orchestration and he generates unease with repeated short phrases above often rich, slow-moving textures that create identifiable aural shapes.
The work’s other two major strengths are also musical. Firstly, the writing never descends into tiresome contemporary opera cliche of portraying angst by having singers shrieking at stratospheric pitch at which text is inaudible. And Muhly’s immersion in the Anglican choral tradition shows in his writing a key role for a boy treble (astonishingly assured Joseph Beesley).
Still, individual vocal lines, though easy on the ear, lack individuality. Paradoxically, the nearest the piece gets to achieving a wholly distinctive voice is in cascading chorus passages delivering multitudinous internet voices lit by the glow of hundreds of laptops. These scenes, with the entire stage flooded with video imagery, are the opera’s strongest.
Elsewhere, although Sher’s direction of the singers is precise, his grip on momentum is weak and his response to the text drably over-literal. That’s evident in Michael Yeargan’s anodyne, clunkily moved sets, with the spell continually broken by stagehands ushering furniture about.
With more than two years to go before its Met appearance, there’s time to develop the piece further. Tightening and a design rethink could only strengthen this not flawless but seriously auspicious debut.