Literally operatic: Two Boys at the Met plus opera in Boston
A few minutes after the final curtain of Two Boys descended, after composer Nico Muhly received his ovation and joined the cast for their curtain calls, I think I figured out the true nature of this opera. This was the first main stage Metropolitan Opera production of the estimable Met/Lincoln Center Theater New Works program. Two Boys has been in the works for over five years, and had its world premiere at the English National Opera in 2011. The Met has given it serious encouragement and high-end attention. The opera has a libretto—based on an actual crime in 2001, in Manchester, England—by playwright Craig Lucas, a Pulitzer and Tony finalist; was directed by Tony Award-winning Bartlett Sher (South Pacific); and conducted by David Robertson, music- director designate of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, a musician especially admired for his performances of contemporary music. The intricate production design by Michael Yeargan, which includes a gloomy police office with overhead fluorescent lights, and projections of computer screens and internet chat rooms (by 59 Productions), is certainly not cheap looking (as was Yeargan’s set for one of the Met’s few other premiere’s in recent decades, John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby). Care and money had clearly gone into this production.
But the opera turns out to be little more than an episode of Prime Suspect, extended an extra hour by the music. Jane Tennison, the Helen Mirren character, is here Anne Strawson (sung by mezzo-soprano Alice Coote)—the career police inspector with the unhappy personal backstory (a child given up for adoption, an ailing mother at home)—and the case she’s reluctantly saddled with is the stabbing of Jake, a gay 13-year-old computer whiz (sixth-grader treble Andrew Pulver), by a 16-year-old he’s apparently connected with on line. We’re not really sure why Strawson so resists taking this case, except that her abandoned child is now also around the same age as the perpetrator. The 16-year-old, Brian (tenor Paul Appleby), tells Strawson that he’d been “chatting” with the 13-year-old’s sister Rebecca (soprano Jennifer Zetlan), and had actually met her kid brother in person. He tells Strawson that the siblings were in danger because they’d looked too closely into the computer left behind by a friend of their mother, “aunt” Fiona (mezzo-soprano Sandra Piques Eddy), who may be a spy (we see her wearing a tell-tale trench coat). It’s an unlikely story, and the inspector is dubious, but by the first-act curtain, she’s come to believe Brian. And in the second act, both Strawson and Brian himself learn the fantastic-but-true motivations behind the story—the desperate attempt by Jake, who’s been stricken with a fatal disease, not only to seduce Brian but to get Brian to kill him. And so this entire plot has been concocted on the computer by Jake.
This TV plot is, of course, unusual subject matter for an opera. What has to make this compelling as opera is the music, and Muhly’s music has considerable virtues: especially energy (in a “minimalismic” sort of way) and color. He’s a skilful orchestrator. Though we certainly need the Met’s English titles to catch all the words, this may be more a problem with diction than with the orchestration. What Muhly’s music isn’t, though, is memorable. It chugs along, it slows down, it speeds up, it sounds ominous and tense, but it never captivates the imagination. It’s all orchestration. The opera ends with an embarrassingly saccharine chorale, “Sweet dreams,” about how “the most ordinary boy in the world” is “gone”—along the lines of Bernstein’s “Make Our Garden Grow,” but without the memorable tune.
Anthony Tommasini, in his Times review, listed Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Meredith Monk, and Benjamin Britten among Muhly’s influences, and they are indeed all too palpable. I’d also add Bernard Herrmann, in a passage that sounds right off the soundtrack of North by Northwest. Finally the score doesn’t have much musical profile, or affect, or sense of dramatic pace. One character sounds like another. And Robertson and the singers can’t make up for what the music lacks. Muhly is only 32, and talented, but when you think what some younger composers like Thomas Adès, George Benjamin, or Andy Vores have accomplished around that age, Muhly doesn’t seem quite such a wunderkind.
Lucas’s slick libretto doesn’t really give Muhly quite enough room to build a musical foundation. He gives Anne Strawson monologue-arias that echo the Governess’s climactic “I am alone” aria in Britten’s Turn of the Screw. The opera doesn’t seem intended as a period piece, yet Strawson’s computer illiteracy and her complaints that the internet depersonalizes human interaction already feel dated.
Muhly has revised Two Boys since its London performances. For the American premiere at the Met, Israeli choreographer Hofesh Shechter was called on to add dances to mimic the churning chat-room music (the London critics evidently found these scenes too static). But his writhing bodies crossing the stage are laughable (think Emmy telecast), by far the low point among the production values.
The cast and chorus were certainly exemplary. Solid singers. Solid actors. The best voices were probably Coote’s, Zetlan’s, and Piques Eddy’s. In slightly smaller roles, baritone Christopher Bolduc, as the Jake whom Brian imagines Jake to be, and bass-baritone Keith Miller as the malevolent imaginary gardener, acquitted themselves well as stereotypes, as did Maria Zifchak and Kyle Pfortmiller as Brian’s parents, Caitlin Lynch as Jake’s mother, and Judith Forst as Anne Stawson’s aged mother, even continuing her stock old-lady shuffle into the curtain calls.
The Met gave Two Boys seven performances, with an advisory in the program that it contains “some profanity, sexually explicit language, and adult content.” I attended the penultimate, on a Saturday night, and—even after mixed reviews—the house was full. Who says opera goers don’t want to see something new and different, even if it’s not as good as it thinks it is?
Opera continues in Boston. The brand new Opera Brittenica, devoting itself completely to works of Benjamin Britten, inaugurated its season with a low-budget but powerful production in the little theater at the Cambridge YMCA of Britten’s classical/Christian melodrama The Rape of Lucretia, with Geoffrey Pope leading a superb group of freelance chamber players, and imaginatively potent staging by Giselle Ty (the Lucretia program also carried a warning about “graphic material and explicitly non-consentual sexual acts that may be offensive to some”). The major roles were double cast (I heard Sophie Michaux as Lucretia, Adrian Rosales as Tarquinius, and ReShaun Campbell as Collatinus) and there was a follow-up performance in New York. It tells us something that the artistic director, Joshua Collier, and the producer, Aliana de la Guardia, are both singers. My only complaint concerns the generally fuzzy diction and a silly costume for Lucretia that made her look like Iolanthe. Brittenica’s next three programs consist entirely of concert music, but it returns to opera with a rare staging of the third of Britten’s “church parables,” The Burning Fiery Furnace, conducted by the legendary Donald Teeters at All Saints Church in Brookline (May 8-9).
Boston Lyric Opera’s fifth annual “Opera Annex” production took place at Boston’s former armory, now called The Castle. These smaller-scale productions, away from the uncomfortable and acoustically challenging Shubert Theatre (sometimes, as here, presenting their own acoustical challenges) have been among the BLO’s better efforts (Tim Albery’s hair-raising staging of Peter Maxwell Davies’s The Lighthouse at the JFK Library in 2012 was probably the most inspired production in BLO’s checkered history). This year’s opera was Jack Beeson’s neglected 1965 Lizzie Borden, with the orchestra drastically reduced to chamber size from its original grand opera proportions, and the score abbreviated to fit into a single 90-minute act (in 1996, Glimmerglass Opera, whose general director at the time, Esther Nelson, is the current BLO director, put on the complete version). This reduced version is clearly an attempt to make the opera more economical (in all senses), and has the approval of Beeson’s daughter.
One of my continual questions about BLO productions concerns a pervasive contradiction. The company seems to want to please a core audience who prefer traditional repertoire. But it engages directors who want to experiment with untraditional conceptions. This season’s disastrously mishandled Magic Flute won’t really matter in the long run because another production will come along soon enough, though there’s less likely to be a quick replacement for BLO’s even more bizarrely misconceived Flying Dutchman. But with a real rarity like Lizzie Borden, which few Bostonians are likely to have seen before, Christopher Alden’s expressionistically mannered approach to the staging—having “real” historical 19th-century figures dressed in the garb of the 1950s (sweater, baseball cap, windbreaker, pants suit) and making some of the characters parade around the stage as if they were zombies escaped from The Night of the Living Dead, lie on the stage floor, or hide under a table—seems directly counter to the composer’s intention. VAI has just released a DVD of the 1965 telecast with the original cast shortly after the opera’s premiere (a mesmerizing and very sympathetic Brenda Lewis sings the tormented Lizzie), and it’s so moving partly because it’s so thoroughly committed to telling the story.
Beeson called this his “Electra” opera, with Lizzie as Electra and her step-mother as Clytemnestra—an idea reinforced by Kenward Elmslie’s poetic libretto. Keeping the characters straight-jacketed in the clothing of the Victorian Age (as Eugene O’Neill did in Mourning Becomes Electra) might have had more powerful resonance as a metaphor of repression than the more casual 20th-century clothing. 1950’s “conformity” seems very different from the Victorian repression Beeson depicts. Back in 1997, Alden similarly undermined BLO’s Lucia di Lammermoor, turning Sir Walter Scott’s 17th-century aristocrats into 19th-century bourgeoisie. He also placed them, as he did again in Lizzie Borden, on a steeply raked stage (I feared for the singers).
The complete opera as Beeson wrote it also has more musical variety and provides the audience with more breathing space—and the characters with more motivation. BLO’s more “efficient” reduction is both more relentless and more monotonous. Richard Strauss’s Elektra is also relentless, but that music is relentlessly thrilling.
Apart from the misguided updating, stylized blocking, and the problematical acoustics, the production had its virtues. Andrew Holland’s simple set was quite effective. The raked stage (surrounded by the audience on three sides), backed by a tilted stage-wide photograph of the actual Borden house in Fall River, conveyed the feeling of something askew and disorienting, italicized by Allen Hahn’s striking lighting effects. These qualities alone might have been enough to suggest the Borden house was the House of Atreus.
Worst of all was what Alden did to soprano Caroline Worra (who previously for the BLO played the title role in Handel’s Agrippina and another Electra in Mozart’s Idomeneo). Here she was Abigail Borden, Lizzie’s stepmother. Beeson and Elmslie’s Abbie is a kind of would-be bluestocking. She plays the harmonium and sings in French, and regards Lizzie with condescension and contempt, almost as an ignorant servant. Worra is a delightfully uninhibited performer whose major liability is an impulse to ham it up. Instead of controlling this impulse, Alden let her exaggerate it. In her pants suit and beehive hairdo and low-cut blouse, even reaching down into her husband’s crotch, Worra turned Abbie into a suburban vulgarian and sexual predator, playing this grim role for comedy. Some of her singing was loud to the point of shrieking.
Alden has Heather Johnson, as Lizzie, begin the performance by crashing an ax into the kitchen table, where it remained for the entire performance. Then he had her march around carrying an image of Michelangelo’s Temptation of Adam and Eve. She’s a very strong singer—the best in this cast. She too had to force her voice, but except for her violent, unleashed pantomime ax murder at the end, she remained a figure of mysterious restraint, rather without visible feeling. This wasn’t quite right, but it was more appropriate than Worra’s excesses.
Baritone Daniel Mobbs (Mr. Borden), soprano Chelsea Basler (Lizzie’s younger sister Margaret), baritone David McFerrin (Margaret’s sea-captain suitor), and tenor Omar Najmi (Reverend Harrington), were more than adequate. The players in the reduced orchestra were terrific, and so were the kids in the PALS Children’s Chorus.
This reduced version was explicitly designed to encourage more productions of Lizzie Borden. It’s already on the Tanglewood schedule for next summer, the first such collaboration between BLO and the BSO, and it will certainly be more audible at Ozawa Hall. But it’s not what the composer intended, and on the basis of this first attempt, it doesn’t seem an improvement.
If Lizzie Borden was compromised by the director not taking the story literally enough, my one reservation about the Boston Conservatory’s production of Janácek’s sublime and heartbreaking The Cunning Little Vixen was that Johnathon Pape’s direction, Peter Waldron’s turntable set (with the exception of the well-appointed badger’s lair and the tavern in the shape of a larger-than-human beer stein), and Gail Astrid Buckley’s maybe too-cute animal costumes may all have been a little heavy-handedly literal, in a work whose music is all quicksilver. So it was actually more moving to read about the death of the little vixen in the program note than to experience it in the theater. Maybe no physical production could ever be the production of my dreams (though I might start with the kind of suggestiveness that can be achieved only through the evanescence of lighting).
It should be obvious that this is one of my favorite operas, and since I’ve never seen a live performance before, I’m very grateful to the Boston Conservatory, which continually puts on some of the best shows in town, especially Broadway musicals. Once again, I’m as impressed with the dancers as with the singers, and Alice Gee and Amanda Shaw’s choreography had just what the synthetic choreography in Two Boys lacked: imagination and charm. The principal roles were double cast, and my night, among the lead singers were Ryne Terry as the Forester, who wants to bring home and tame the little vixen he finds in the woods, Trevor Drury as the lovelorn schoolmaster, and Colin Ruffer as the poacher who finally kills the vixen. Their performances were thoroughly convincing, both vocally and dramatically.
But the star of the show was unquestionably soprano Vanessa Becerra as Bystrouska, the Vixen. Delicate in her movement and vocally refined (what a perfectly trained crystalline voice she has), she instantly became my ideal Vixen. I believed her satirical feminist contempt for the overfed hens (the ugliest and most hilarious chickens I can remember) and her Socialist politics (she wants to spread the wealth). I can hardly imagine anyone better in this rewarding role.
And did I mention that everyone was singing in the original Czech!
Andrew Altenbach led the large cast and reduced orchestra with brio, a good instinct for the Czech folk dances, and a deep feeling for Janácek’s sense of the mysteries of nature that pervade this music—moonlight and sunrise and the changing seasons. The whole score is a magical hymn to the natural cycles.
Best of all the recent opera performances was an all-too-rare performance of one of the masterpieces of 20th-century vocal music, Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein’s literally heavenly Four Saints in Three Acts, with Gil Rose leading a strong cast with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, in a concert version at Jordan Hall. The original 1934 production began at the Hartford Athenaeum and quickly moved to Broadway. It had choreography by Frederick Ashton, a cellophane set by Florine Stettheimer, and John Houseman directed the all-black cast. There was nothing like it: half musical comedy, half minstrel show, half mystery play—though it surely has more than three halves, just as it has more than three acts and certainly more than four saints. (The Metropolitan Museum has a film clip you can see on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sXINp5iuUyw). Mark Morris created a wonderfully buoyant production (2001), but Robert Wilson’s (1996) was dead on its feet, leaden, entirely missing the verbal and musical playfulness. Even absurdity can be taken too literally. Four Saints is probably more reliable on a recording or in concert than in a fully staged production.
But what an uncanny piece it is—joyous and poignant, absolutely silly and absolutely profound. Who would guess that the melismatic repetition of the words “April Fool’s Day” could be one of the most lyrical musical settings in 20th-century opera. Or that the most famous line, “Pigeon’s on the grass alas,” could be among the most touching. Or that Dada-ist nonsense rhymes—“In wed in led in said in dead in dead wed said led led said wed dead”—could be so bone-chilling. In his biography of Thomson, Virgil Thomson: Composer on the Aisle, Anthony Tommasini tells the complex and sometimes painful story of the working relationship between Thomson and Stein. Their unhappy disputes are nowhere evident in the finished product.
Gil Rose is a rose is a rose. He got the BMOP musicians, the enthusiastic chorus, and all the singers with their excellent diction (Thomson particularly praised the diction of his original performers), headed by Sarah Pelletier as the first St. Theresa (there are two), to capture eloquently the spirit of Thomson’s patchwork quilt of Americana. The day after the concert, the BMOP team recorded it. It will be a welcome addition to the Thomson and BMOP discographies.
Dr. Schwartz's writing also appears in our sister publication, The Berkshire Review for the Arts, especially in the summer, when he visits Tanglewood and other festivals in the Berkshires. Click here for a list of them.