Thursday, 30 June 2011
Two stodgy boys
I'm certainly not referring to their creators pictured above in the first of Richard Hubert Smith's ENO production shots: knowing treble Joseph Beesley and more-than-promising tenor Nicky Spence, unrecognisable in the transition from feckless twentysomething Baron Lummer in the Scottish Opera Intermezzo to tortured teenager. Both were part of an excellent team at ENO, all of whom handled their not ungrateful vocal lines - that's something, for a start - with aplomb. And I hate to pour cold water over the bubbling score of the orchestrally adept Nico Muhly, who knows how to orchestrate and provides more shifts in instrumental colour and texture as well as harmony than I was expecting from Glassian premises.
Yet the whole thing is so turgid and lumpy as music-drama that half way through the first act I wanted to run screaming from the theatre. That's a response, I guess, though it's not even the purer loathing I had for Glass's Satyagraha. At least Glass had the courage of his back-to-basics convictions - an anti-theatrical four chords in forty-five minutes which serve as something of a trademark (that he simply hasn't evolved like Adams or Reich is another matter). Muhly, though, always sounds like someone else - mostly Adams in early, Nixon in China mode, without that score's flying dynamism.
And how did Muhly botch that most operatic of opportunities - the chance to haunt us all with a choral, overlapping representation of the internet's humming 'netherworld of cheerless cheer'? When so-so librettist Craig Lucas says that 'opera isn't about beautiful music, it's about dramatic tension', he sounds Two Boys' knell - though he seems to believe that his composer can do the nodal-point stuff. Really? Only consider the stabbing and its aftermath, which despite being set up by some fine growly tuba-and-basses writing go for nothing (is that the point?) The overall result is portentous, very far from the humanity Lucas half-etches and as moralistic as the Royal Opera's Anna Nicole without the fun, the musical invention or the staging of genius.
I liked two things in the score: the shifting support for the first solo of Sue Bickley's Detective Inspector Anne Strawson on curtain-rise, and the way her vocal line takes up the orchestral line at the start of the second. Yet ultimately even Bickley doesn't have a chance to engage as she should.
There's still a chance that the real Nico Muhly will stand up, but I have a feeling he may carry on being the Korngold to John Adams's Richard Strauss (which is hardly a huge insult if you revere Erich Wolfgang more than I do, and besides, Korngold even at his most precocious had a better sense of where to press the dramatic buttons than Muhly does). Let's also remember that by the age of 30 Shostakovich had written both The Nose and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Prokofiev The Gambler and The Love for Three Oranges. All I can see at the moment, though, is that in terms of sharpness, subcutaneous horror and sheer fecundity of ideas, ENO's latest show is left standing by its Midsummer Night's Dream - and that goes for Bartlett Sher's fidgety production, too, with its now-generic video projection.
Well, not everyone agrees: for an alternative view, see my colleague Igor's review on The Arts Desk. Do go and make up your own mind(s): just because a new work fizzles, that doesn't mean enterprising companies like ENO shouldn't keep on trying to find the operas of our time, the ones that really engage our hearts and minds.