Well, the singing was very good. The opera had that going for it, at least, and being opera, the singing is kind of a big deal.
Nico Muhly's music was unobtrusive, if that can be considered a virtue. Vocal lines were clear and singable and roughly followed speech rhythms and inflections while still managing to incorporate identifiable motivic material. The problem is that the music comprised of essentially four discreet temperamental/textural/thematic edifices, all sounding vaguely similar to John Adams, but that they were never developed or recombined in any notable way until the superfluous, anticlimactic final chorus. When an air of menace was needed, the formulaic addition of low brass and bass drum was used as cliched signal. The score was generic and unsubtle, but it got across what it was trying to get across, and while competent writing that remains encapsulated within its chosen idiom will not a masterwork make, it also alone should not be enough to sink an opera. In the case of Two Boys, that was achieved by the libretto.
The narrative, with libretto by Craig Lucas, is reminiscent of what has been said in the Time Out Film Guide about the Godfrey Reggio/Phillip Glass film, Koyaanisqatsi: that it is like "being condescended to by an idiot," and for the same reasons. The work undermines and negates its own hammered-home conclusions. In the case of Two Boys, these theses were that the Internet is a world of illusion in which young people lose themselves and their connection to reality, and that parents need to spend more time with, and pay more attention to, what their children. Simplistic babble for those oblivious to contemporary culture and who nodded along with great concern to the now-infamous Time magazine apocalyptic Millennial selfie "The Me Me Me Generation" cover. In other words, your most stereotypical opera donor demographic.
Synopsis: Brian is accused of stabbing Jake and leaving him on life support, from which he is ultimately removed. Inspector Anne Strawson takes the case under duress and repeatedly interviews Brian, only to be regaled with increasingly improbable conspiracies involving murder, rape, and MI5. Initially believing Brian to be concocting outright falsehoods, Strawson eventually realizes that he had been the victim of an online chatroom intrigue orchestrated by Jake, who had manipulated Brian through the use of false identities into committing the stabbing, under the circumstances an assisted suicide.
The story is structured as a police procedural, a whodunit. Unfortunately, the presence of the synopsis in the playbill, and the propensity of opera audiences to actually read synopses, killed all surprise. But this is a minor quibble, and much engagement could have been had seeing how the puzzle pieces came together. Unfortunately, gross misunderstandings of both technology and character rendered this unfolding an embarrassment to behold. Inspector Strawson is a melodramatic luddite who lives with an overbearing mother and is haunted by the child she'd given up for adoption 16 years earlier. She identifies this child with both assailant and victim, alternately lamenting at having surrendered her child into this technological wasteland the teens these days inhabit, and berating herself in certitude that she would have ruined her child's life. When she stays late at the station house one night researching the case, she panics at the prospect of not having returned to her perfectly healthy, if elderly, mother. This level of personal and professional instability is rather incompatible with the job of homicide inspector, and leave Strawson a transparent audience surrogate, and most unbelievable as a character in her own right.
As she interviews Brian, the scenes he describes are reenacted in real time. Unfortunately, this is done with such realism and naturalism, including details of which neither Brian nor Strawson could have been aware, among them Jake's reaction to Brian while the former was singing treble in chapel, before the two had ever officially met, that one does not doubt their veracity - especially when one has any knowledge of how easy it is to create a fictitious online persona. Strawson's skepticism is not even revealed until she is presented with transcripts of the chats that confirm Brian's telling of the events. Given the action takes place in 2003, one would imagine the first thing a professional policewoman would do would be to confer with the IT specialist, who would trace servers and IP addresses and wrap things up in time for Inspector Morse reruns. Inexplicably, it takes weeks for Strawson to pursue a practical investigation, as she spends her time agonizing over the empty lives of children and the dangers of technology.
After confronting the chat transcripts and finally believing Brian, Strawson, aided accidentally by her mother, pulls together the mystery that Jake had been behind all the characters in the conspiracy - the flirtatious teenager Rebecca, the seductive secret agent Fiona, the brutal assassin Peter - as a convoluted plot to be alone with and have sex with Brian under the false pretenses of his sister Rebecca's rape and murder, by a consistent quirk in his spelling of a word, a plot device absurd and tenuous when one considers the many distortions of English one finds in teenager Internet argot. These events continue to be depicted through reenactment of Brian's narration. But whose visions are these reconstructions? Are they Brian's recollections or Strawson's imaginings? The real Jake, eventually revealed as a boy soprano, seems impossibly innocent for a sexual aggressor. Is he a projection by Strawson of her lost child? All the characters are living in illusions, the parents who think their children are beyond reproach and suspicion, Strawson's mother, who believes the answer to her daughter's problems is to lose weight and find a man, Strawson herself, fixated on lives that were not nor could ever be, and the teens who, far from being trapped in the mists of the web, find the web merely an enabler of their typical and timeless offline fantasies. This frustratingly contradicts the libretto, which places the blame on computers and upbringings, and plays up the tragic romance of a precocious "extraordinary boy" who died for being rejected by the "ordinary boy" he could not have.
There were many other failures and missed opportunities to make something redeeming of the opera. Choruses of overlapping interjections stood for the greater community of people interacting on the Internet, a strong argument of how technology brings people together. Yet individual lines, some relevant to the story, including taunting and cyberbullying, are ignored. Second-rate projections depict a web of connections like something out of a 1990s Anna Paquin commercial, and shatter with obvious symbolism when Brian, finally understanding that he will not be running away with "Fiona," whom he had thought was paying him to kill Jake, is disabused of that expectation. Dancers entered at random moments to writhe, gyrate, and collapse. Perhaps this was to express anguish, but it proved a gratuitous distraction. The costumes of Jake's avatars were very nearly color coded in red and light blue; nearly, but not quite. What could have been a smart bit of Shyamalan-esque foreshadowing wound up, like so much else, an inconsistent afterthought. Finally, given the limitations on the suspense imposed on Two Boys by the genre of opera, there was no good reason to awkwardly shoehorn the concept into a combination detective story/morality play. The theme of illusion and unreality was assigned entirely to the internet, when an exploration of self-deception and fantasy, of naïve and impulsive teenage perspectives, reflected by growing disparities between Brian's reenactments and their interpretations by Inspector Strawson might have made for a far more compelling conceit.
As it was, however, Two Boys lacked a convincing scenario, realistic characters, memorable music, and subtlety in staging. It was a slapdash, hackneyed, careless, and tedious effort by all involved, save the highly creditable performers - onstage and in the pit - and crew. In lieu of craft, it aimed at buzzwords and sensationalism (Internet! Underage homosexual sex!) for credibility, turning what could have been raw into slick, calculated artifice, and what could have been impressively over-the-top into tepid naturalism. There was little commitment, and messages were mixed and unintentionally ambiguous and contradictory. For all the importance of a new commission of a young composer by such a major company as the Metropolitan, one must expect and demand better.