Child’s Play: At Its Best, Nico Muhly’s Two Boys Is Steeped in Mood and Emotion

Iestyn Davies is flawless in 'A Midsummer Night’s Dream'; 'Baden-Baden 1927' is appealing, if insubstantial

'Two Boys.'

‘Two Boys.’

Living in an imperfect world, we experience a lot of imperfect art; the vast bulk of the art we see is flawed in one way or another.

Sometimes, the imperfection is fairly trivial. You might wish, for example, that the brass orchestration in the second act of Tristan und Isolde weren’t quite so thick. But this hardly detracts from Tristan’s status as one of the jewels of Western civilization; in context, the “flaw” is inconsequential.

Most works of art aren’t towering Wagnerian masterpieces, but, even in a relatively modest work, flaws still need to be understood in context. No one, for example, could call Nico Muhly’s opera Two Boys a perfect opera. There are more than a few things wrong with this piece, as seen at its Metropolitan Opera premiere Oct. 21. But what’s wrong with it is not nearly as important as what’s right.

Two Boys demonstrates that Mr. Muhly is capable of very great things indeed, offering extended glimpses of the kind of masterpiece he just missed writing here, and, more happily, of the kind of masterpiece I feel confident he will write in the future.

That happy day will most likely follow on his finding a more workable libretto than the one Craig Lucas provided for Two Boys. It’s set in the form of a police procedural, with the bulk of the action shown in flashback. Sixteen-year-old Brian is held for questioning in the case of the attempted murder by stabbing of his friend Jake. Grilled by Detective Strawson, Brian admits he committed the stabbing but only because he was under the thumb of a cabal of spies and child molesters he stumbled onto online.

The solution to the mystery—more facile than a plot from Murder, She Wrote—leaves Strawson reeling with shock at the fact that sometimes people lie on the Internet. And you, dear members of the audience, do you ever stop and think just how lonely this modern world is?

It’s hard to imagine that even Giuseppe Verdi could make much of a scenario like this, and as narrative it certainly defeats Mr. Muhly. Talky interrogations and interviews don’t seem to inspire him; the back-and-forth is efficient, and the text is mostly clear, but the music is neutral, unpersonalized.

Fortunately, Two Boys gets out of the police station early and often as Brian recounts the increasingly horrific online encounters that led to his agreeing to murder Jake. Once the characters go online, the composer’s talent soars, creating in sound the impression of cyberspace as a virtual environment, welcoming at first and later forbidding.

Mr. Muhly crafts a series of choral numbers to depict Brian’s Internet sessions, ranging from a giddy, almost childish burble of voices leading into his first encounter with his flirtatious neighbor Rebecca to the cacophony of shouts and threats Strawson “hears” when she eavesdrops on the world of unmoderated chat rooms.

The ornate choral writing is never merely busy for the sake of virtuosity but rather as an expression of the sheer wonder of the Internet, the infinity of possible connections. It’s music of a sort an earlier generation of composer might have written to depict magic or religious transfiguration, just heartbreakingly lovely.

On only a slightly lower level are the “chat” duets Brian has with Rebecca and the various other online conspirators. So sweatily muscular is the encounter with the rapist Peter—he bullies Brian into masturbating on Web camera—that it’s not until the opera is over that we stop to think that the scene makes no logical sense. But then, upon reflection, neither does Rigoletto: Suspension of disbelief while the audience is still in the theater is all a good opera absolutely requires.

It may be that, if opera remains among Mr. Muhly’s myriad interests, he’ll cobble together a recitative-arioso style of the same quality as his ensemble writing. Or maybe he’ll choose subjects with less emphasis on conventional narrative and more opportunities to evoke mood and emotion—in other words, what Two Boys does so well when it’s not bogged down in murder mystery.

And in opera, Mr. Muhly has already found a likely muse: the 30-year-old tenor Paul Appleby. He not only looked and acted half his age as the troubled Brian; he also sang his online duets with the vigor and commitment most singers reserve for Britten or Wagner.

The superb British mezzo Alice Coote did what she could to make something of Strawson’s drab recitatives; it wasn’t her fault one kept wishing she and her soap opera backstory would just go away. Online temptresses Rebecca and Fiona were well cast with the agile-voiced Jennifer Zetlan and Sandra Piques Eddy.

Jake, Brian’s friend and sort-of lover, is seen in two versions: as an idealized older teen, sung warmly by baritone Christopher Bolduc and later as he really is: a frail, nerdy 13-year-old sociopath. That’s a monstrous challenge for a boy soprano, especially in a gigantic theater like the Met. Andrew Pulver sounded a little nervous at first, but his pure tones settled down in the second act. Whether his lack of affect was acting or stage fright, it was creepily effective.

The production, directed by Bartlett Sher, with sets by Michael Yeargan and video by 59 Productions, predictably looks a lot like Tron, except for the Strawson scenes, for which I assume the producers of Prime Suspect will collect residuals. The Met chorus is simply breathtaking across Mr. Muhly’s unorthodox range of vocal effects, and conductor David Robertson does an exemplary job keeping the show not only on track but always moving forward.

The combination of childlike wonder and moody pessimism in Two Boys vividly recalls the style of a composer Mr. Muhly greatly admires, Benjamin Britten. That artist’s 1960 opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which alternated with Two Boys in the Met’s opening weeks, featured a singing performance in which no flaw could be discovered. As the sinister fairy king Oberon, Iestyn Davies made his sleek countertenor purr like a flute in its lowest register. If sophistication made a noise, this is what it would sound like. His acting, too, in the company’s badly dated two-decade-old production, looked effortless. Enfolding the youthful Puck in a tight embrace, Mr. Davies projected neither parental care nor sexual longing but something more like aesthetic delight in a gorgeous objet d’art.

Off the Lincoln Center campus, an intriguing presentation by Gotham Chamber Opera turned out a triumph of good intentions but only workmanlike as an actual opera performance. Baden-Baden 1927 is a reconstruction of an avant-garde program of short operas performed at the European spa and in the year of the title.

The four brief pieces are musically and dramatically unrelated, but at Gotham director Paul Curran imposed a plausible dramatic framework: Each opera is an attempt to answer the question: What is art? As such, he set the action in and around a modern gallery, featuring a monumental painting by Georg Baselitz.

Unfortunately, the first two pieces, Darius Milhaud’s L’Enlèvement d’Europe (The Abduction of Europa), and Ernst Toch’s Die Prinzessin auf der Erbse (The Princess and the Pea) are musically very slight indeed, and together amounted to barely an amuse-bouche.

After the intermission came more satisfying fare. Paul Hindemith’s Hin und zurück (There and Back) is a clever musical joke, presenting a farcical murder scene both in real time and then in reverse—the murdered wife springs back to life and finishes her breakfast. This was the most successful of Mr. Curran’s inventions, with events first shown in silent-movie black-and-white and then (for the happier backward version) in brilliant color.

The best-known piece here was Kurt Weill’s Mahagonny Songspiel, a plotless song cycle about a mythical American city where the only thing that matters is money. The six singers of this work arrived in 1920s garb to invade the modern-day gallery, which now housed an installation of treadmills. Those two mainstays of modern opera production, the onstage blow job and the buff chorus boy in underpants, appeared dutifully if confusingly.

The singing was all accurate and enthusiastic if not always pleasant to hear: In as small a space as the Gerald W. Lynch Theater, there’s no need for so much yelling. Soprano Helen Donath, now in the sixth decade of her career, flaunted nimble top notes as the wicked queen in the Toch trifle, then belted out Weill’s “Alabama Song” in chest tones Patti LuPone might envy.

Gotham’s artistic director conducted a crisp performance, with a nice ragtime bounce to the Mahagonny numbers. In fact, the only real flaw here was selecting so insubstantial a program in the first place.