Rating: **

When a young boy fights for his life after getting stabbed, another is suspected for attempted murder. However, as Detective Inspector Anne Strawson (Susan Bickley) tries to make sense of tales of spies, missing girls, boy geniuses, and rampant gardeners, getting to the truth amongst a tangle of chat room conversations in a seedy online world seems near impossible.

Bartlett Sher’s direction of Nico Muhly’s new opera, with libretto by Craig Lucas, is set amongst a dark abyss of towering cuboids that move menacingly across the stage courtesy of set designer Michael Yeargan, embellished with some fantastic use of shadowy lighting from Donald Holder and projected graphics by 59 Productions. The set makes particularly effective use of gauze, which works well with the lighting to create scenes that are both haunting and mesmerising.

The cast are impressive. Bickley’s steely and determined detective inspector is superbly acted and sung, and even though Nicky Spence doesn’t look too convincing as a keen 16-year-old who plays a lot of football, his performance as the accused Brian is still commanding and involving.

ENO Two Boys

Brilliant direction, cast, lighting, and use of projection isn't enough to save Nico Muhly's new opera, with libretto by Craig Lucas, from being dreary. Photograph: Richard Hubert Smith. Courtesy of the English National Opera.

This is, however, an operatic misadventure. The music is minimalist to the point of being unexciting, never swelling to much emotion or grandiosity. Even though it becomes a little more animated in Act II, the entire opera has a distinctly flat energy to it. There is also no room for the principal performers to really show off their abilities. You get the sense that both Bickley and Spence are veritable powerhouses, but there’s never an opportunity to even get a glimpse of this. Most disappointing of all was the finale, which consisted of little more than a mush of orchestral sound topped with a pandemonium of operatic barking, which failed to touch upon any sentiment or sense of wonderment.

There are, to be sure, one or two points that demonstrate why Muhly has garnered his reputation as a young virtuoso composer, with some pieces full of intricate and detailed flourishes that are genuinely impressive; unfortunately, though, these moments are few and far between. As for the story, the portrait of the online world seems a little dry and unoriginal. If this opera had been written fifteen years ago whilst the internet was still a new and unfamiliar phenomenon, and chat rooms were less au fait, the whole outing would be a little more sensational. Instead we’re left with a story that is uninspiring, and slow moving at that.

It is a shame that these failures terminally mar the opera, as the creativity behind the production and vocal talent involved is testament to the English National Opera’s consistency as a company that produces nothing short of spectacular shows.  In a year that has seen some bold and exciting new works such as the Royal Opera’s Anna Nicole, and Sadler’s Wells’ The Most Incredible Thing, Muhly’s Two Boys is a dreary let down.

Two Boys plays at the London Coliseum, WC2N 4ES, until 8 July 2011.  Tickets are £16 – £51.  To book tickets call 0871 911 0200 or visit www.eno.org.

Photographs courtesy of the English National Opera.