“Lizzie Borden took an axe/And gave her mother forty whacks…”—so begins the old rhyme about the 1890s murder case in Fall River, Massachusetts. Both stepmother and father were killed. Though Elizabeth Borden was cleared of the crime in a jury trial, artistic treatments of the case have assumed her guilt, notably Agnes de Mille’s ballet of 1948, Fall River Legend, and Jack Beeson’s opera Lizzie Borden of 1965. There are films and television series, some realized, some still in the planning stage.
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.