June 27, 2011 6:39 pm

Two Boys, Coliseum, London

The internet has become so pervasive that sooner or later opera was duty-bound to give it face-time. In Two Boys, American composer Nico Muhly and librettist Craig Lucas explore the web’s demonic side – its capacity to induce psychological and physical violence, illustrated by the case of 16-year-old Brian. The narrative – part thriller, part fantasy – has moral overtones without seeming to moralise. The music is easy on the ear, the two-hour running-time just about perfect. Give or take a whiff of cybersex, there’s nothing to alienate or offend. So why is Two Boys so underwhelming?

To judge by the world premiere at English National Opera, the fault lies in Muhly’s generic minimalism. The orchestral accompaniment, rarely breaking out of a steady moderato, has the quality of a soundtrack. Vocal lines are singable but impersonal. Two Boys’ godfather is Peter Gelb, director of New York’s Metropolitan Opera, where it will be restaged in 2013. “Accessible” hovers over every bar.

The most arresting touch is a sequence of choral interludes, clearly inspired by Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes , which mimic the invisible babble of the net. They may sound derivative – shades of the American-Anglican church tradition in which Muhly grew up – but their inchoate mystery gives pause for thought: how are gullible children supposed to distinguish between the alluring identities of an internet chat-room and those of the mundane here and now?

Apart from Brian, whose innocence is corrupted (Britten again), the only representatives of non-cyber reality are a detective, Anne, and her mother: their repartee brings light relief. Lucas’s taut, witty libretto has one masterstroke – a mythic, amoral creature named Fiona, who represents the seductive spirit of the net. But the whole scenario deserves a composer with a more distinctive voice.

Bartlett Sher’s expert staging, designed by Michael Yeargan and Catherine Zuber, with video projections by 59 Productions, has the seamlessness of film. Nicky Spence is the suitably hapless Brian, Heather Shipp a smart, sexy Fiona. Susan Bickley does her best to create a character out of Anne and finds a brilliant foil in Valerie Reid’s Mum. Rumon Gamba conducts.

3 stars

English National Opera

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