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First Nighter: Nico Muhly's "Two Boys" Proves One Plus One Equals Disappointment

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The thing I'm bursting to tell you immediately about Two Boys, the Nico Muhly-Craig Lucas opera at the Metropolitan Opera House--as the first of the Met/Lincoln Center Theater New Works Program commission--is that Anne Strawson (Alice Coote), the detective inspector at the center of it, is about as dumb a cop as you'd hope to avoid on a case where you've been victimized.

Were she Mariska Hargitay as Olivia Benson in Law and Order: SVU, which the opus resembles, the mystery she's attempting to unravel would be solved in no time flat. This would spare audiences precious time in an already short opera that goes on too long and is only occasionally enhanced by the lushly evocative music Muhly provides for choral interludes.

The two boys of the not especially attention-grabbing title are 16-year-old Brian (Paul Appleby), and 13-year old Jake (boy soprano Andrew Pulver). The former--who seems to live by the motto "love's a wind-up and life's a joke"--is accused of stabbing the latter on March 24, 2001 in the trash area of a shopping center somewhere in England. (The action takes place in England, because it's lifted from 2001 headlines there about a similar incident. This explains English-isms such as "bollocks." Other obscenities familiar stateside, too, also abound.)

Interrogating Brian, Detective Strawson learns he's a loner who not only regards cyberspace as the real world but has been in regular communication there via chat rooms with persons identifying themselves with handles like Peetr_69 and Agent11E (which, from where I was sitting, looked for all the world like "Agentile"--wha?). These sinister types seemed to be part of a cabal whose plan was cajoling Brian to commit the knifing.

Of course, anyone who'd read the notes explaining who was behind the nasty deed in the actual police episode would know precisely where everything was leading. Indeed, anyone who had any notion of rampant and well-publicized Internet shenanigans would figure out who was behind the disturbing event.

Unfortunately, Detective Inspector Strawson--no Jane Tennison, she--doesn't own a computer. She's never used one and doesn't know about the figurative and literal getting-away-with-murder that people presenting fictionalized versions of themselves get up to with willing online dupes. Unlikely as it would be for a detective at the start of the new century, it's all news to her. No penny drops quickly as she juggles her professional duties with caring for her ailing mother (Judith Forst).

Although composer Muhly and librettist Lucas have talked about computer-related alienation in the 21st century and things like its echo of mistaken identity and masked balls in art works of the recent and not so recent past, you wonder how they fooled themselves into thinking they were providing any significant commentary about computer downsides over the last few decades that hasn't already been said and said again.

Lucas himself already made several of the same points 15 years ago(!) in his superb 1998 play, The Dying Gaul, where a Hollywood producer ruins his marriage by, among other things, carrying on an online gay affair.

This also makes a reviewer wonder whether the Dying Gaul film version, for which Steve Reich wrote the music, isn't part of Muhly's grab bag of influences.

Commendably enamored of predecessors through the last millennium, Muhly draws on bits and bobs of motets right up to Reich, Philip Glass, Gian-Carlo Menotti and his beloved Benjamin Britten. (Only last week he paid tribute to Britten, Purcell, Handel and himself at Le Poisson Rouge in a rewarding evening of song he hosted at and away from the piano.)

Despite these bows to the past, he doesn't add much. Rather, what comes over as endless recitative (Lucas's prosaic words throughout) has a cumulative dulling effect, occasionally relieved, as already mentioned, by the large chorus, which Donald Palumbo has drilled with his usual aplomb. To be fair, ardent singing by all the principals--but principally Coote, Appleby and clear-voiced Pulver--sweetens the effect. Plus which, David Robertson conducted the too-often-lugubrious score well enough.

No one can say, however, that Sher hasn't given a distinctive look to a production, which has been revised since its 2011 English National Opera presentation. For what could be dubbed a foreboding Neo-German-Expressionism look, the director has assembled his preferred team of set designer Michael Yeargan and costumer Catherine Zuber. He has lighting designer Donald Holder casting long and ominous beams on and in between the large rectangular modules constantly prowling.

Projections--many of them chat-room gab preceded by the > sign--are the handiwork of 59 Productions's Leo Warner, Nicol Scott, Peter Stenhouse and Mark Grimmer, whose surname couldn't be more appropriate.

Then there's Hofesh Shechter's choreography, which is something else again. Since much of Sher's staging requires the performers to sing what they're supposedly typing online, they merely march themselves down stage, stand there stiffly and let fly. If that sounds to you like the static gab is static, you're on the money.

Often the singers are backed by Palumbo's big chorus, all of them with faces lighted by their computer screen. More static static. So Shechter's been asked to liven things up and does so by having a squadron of dancers thread in front of and behind the chorus as they lunge and plunge through various angular gestures. There they are, squatting down or raising their arms in unanswered supplication. It's sure distracting while achieving nothing.

As is said more than once in Two Boys: Oh, my god--otherwise written as, of course, OMG!