Last Friday’s experience at ENO was a reaffirmation to always trust my instinct. Had I listened to it this time I wouldn’t be subjected to the most mind numbing evening I bare to remember. It made the recent Pelleas seem like a walk in the park!
Muhly’s music was a droll long piece of music with little variation, think Debussy but only less interesting.
Having read a number of reviews I was not too alarmed by what I read about the darling of the Upper East Side. The opening cords as the work started where marked by a mock symphonic grandeur that was rather pleasing and then when we starting to encounter the different cardboard thin characters it all disintegrates to a flatulent exchange of banal phrases. Lots of reviewers where clearly been fed the line that Susan Bickley was some latter day operatic version of Helen Mirren’s Prime Suspect character…guess what dear readers that was total tosh. The forced mannerisms of a quasi policewoman, with the accompanying frumpiness do not make a Jane Tennison. Possibly the worst part of Anne Dawson (Bickley’s character) was that she was cursed with some truly atrocious lines that only made some clueless Americans and some middle-Englanders in the auditorium chuckle. Choice lines like: What’s a server? / Bloody Christ! sank me deeper and deeper in despair. Some obvious clunkers in the plot-line such as Brian’s (the accused teenager) mother that apparently had never met any of his friends.The truly awful church scene and the superfluous scenes with Dawson’s mother that added nothing of substance, were brushed aside as we were supposed to be witnessing a gesamtkunstwer apparently!
We have all been living with internet access for over 15 years and as such we expect a certain level of sophistication within a work that uses online exchanges as it’s main plot driver. Especially when it’s written by a 29 year old ardent social networker composer. But unfortunately this was anything but, the en masse chorus ensemble pieces were just scripted silly cliches repeated ad nauseum. Supported by feeble music that it had borrowed more from Philip Glass and John Adams than any discernible originality of its own creator. If people came to listen to a curated two hour mixtape, this was the right gig. Most of the woodwinds where straight out of mid career Glass (think Qatsi trilogy and you’re there) while the use of drums and assorted bells created a soundworld that Adams would feel straight at home with. You may think I am being terribly harsh on Muhly on this count, but unfortunately the score had very few points where it lifted off the mundane droll that it too clearly was pleased to occupy. At the end of the first act I wondered that this feeling of acute boredom would be whisked away in the second half…but that wasn’t to be. The paper thin story really did not provide enough interest through another 45 mins of the same post-minimalist muzak.
Another much lauded feature of the production were the video projections by 59 Productions. Apparently they added freshness and vitality and they were clearly the needed accessory for our fashionable composer’s grand manifestation of his art. As I Tweeted from the Coliseum, your copy of iTunes can do a better job with its visualiser. The projections were too obvious (schematic diagrams creating a starry sky like internet representation / floating photographs straight out of OSx) and actually I wouldn’t be surprised if the choral pieces backdrops were inspired while they were using the backup utility on their Macs (Time Machine, have a look here). Sylvie Guillem single handedly had a much better use of video for a humble dance show than this much lauded, ENO impoverishing multinational production. The only positive use of the projections where when the Inspector played back the CCTV tape, that had a much better relationship with the actions on stage and not the awkward filler that it was for pretty much the rest of the performance.
The overall direction by Bartlett Sher was subdued and actually not bad…it just had the feel of a furniture warehouse with the incessant moving and dragging of tables, chairs, armoires and assorted pine bedroom sets. I wish they had just used a revolving stage or some stage lifts to move the different sets around. Also maybe the cartoonish whisky swigging by Bickley was another one for the not a good idea list.
There were some positive aspects to this unqualified shit storm that the English National Opera served us.
• The duet between between Brian and Rebecca in Act I was fervent and very well sang, a rare lift for the deeply mundane score
• The character of Jake was beautifully sang by Jonathan McGovern and really wished he had more material to sing.
•The final choral piece was indeed beautifully written and well conceived despite the fact we had to endure two hours of really average saggy narration to get to that point.
All of the above may sound like an all out attack on Nico Muhly and his music, but that is not true. I do think he has huge potential and the blame would possibly more lie on his backers and the Metropolitan Opera commissioning him such a major piece. They threw him in the lion’s mouth just in the name of some skewed idea that they were rejuvenating the genre or that they were bringing in new audiences. The fact that he’s only 29 years old is clearly a big marketing advantage and his fashionable status was used to death. But any opera house lives and dies on the box office returns and judging from reports, frequent looks at the ENO website and also my experience on Friday, the auditorium was half empty.
It’s all nice and well to promote a fancy new piece by a young composer with a cringe-worthy “viral” campaign but it has to backed by true substance and a killer (terrible pun) subject. Two boys failed on both counts, adding references to blow jobs, online grooming and pornography does not add any edge to an already caricatured world where the main protagonist is clothed in a hoodie, the secret police looks like cast offs from a rap video casting call and even the token spy is wearing a wearisome camel burbery raincoat. It was the first time in about 5 years that I withheld my applause and I am truly happy to have spent only £20 on a front row Dress Circle ticket. If it ever makes it on the Met stage I’d hope it will have a serious revision to improve the material, if a revision was not beneath Verdi, than Muhly should follow suit.