By James L Paulk
NEW YORK – There’s something about Marnie. She’s terribly flawed, like every character in the opera of the same name by Nico Muhly. But she is darkly fascinating. And the same can be said for Muhly’s intelligent, riveting, occasionally frustrating opera, which opened at the Metropolitan Opera on Oct. 19.
The stakes are always high when the Met ventures into new opera, especially now, as the company is dealing with shrinking audiences and budgets in an environment in which every decision is harshly debated by fans and critics. The knives are out in a partisan atmosphere that oddly mirrors our political climate.
Presenting new works has never seemed to come easy for the company. Longtime general director Rudolf Bing referred to the Met as a museum with himself as the curator. “We only do masterpieces here,” was his comment upon rejecting Britten’s Billy Budd. Little changed in the decades after Bing’s departure. In the 40 years the company was led by James Levine, it presented only five commissioned operas. Peter Gelb, who became general manager in 2006 (overlapping the era of Levine, whose title was music director), initially followed the same cautious approach.
But Marnie is part of a fresh emphasis on creating new works at the Met, a process that has evolved and accelerated in the five years since the company performed Muhly’s other Met commission, Two Boys. Since Marnie was announced, the company has commissioned eight new operas from an enticing list of composers including Matthew Aucoin, Kevin Puts, Missy Mazzoli, and Jeanine Tesori.
Marnie is a Met commission, but the production, by Michael Mayer, is shared with the English National Opera, where it debuted last season. Critic Heidi Waleson, in her fascinating new history of New York City Opera (Mad Scenes and Exit Arias: The Death of New York City Opera and the Future of Opera in America), describes how the NYCO, during the Paul Kellogg years, used Glimmerglass Opera, also headed by Kellogg, to construct productions and mount initial performances, saving considerable money because costs were much lower at the upstate festival. The Met seems to be doing the same thing, working together especially with the English National, which also premiered Two Boys among other projects.
The opera is adapted from the 1961 Winston Graham novel that was also the source for Alfred Hitchcock’s most extreme movie (also titled Marnie). Nicholas Wright’s libretto for the opera hews more closely to the novel than the movie. Still, the far better-known movie looms large over this project. Hitchcock’s Marnie, Tippi Hedren, even managed to show up and steal the show at the curtain call on opening night.
Marnie was something of a dud at the box office. The original reviews were mostly grim. Pauline Kael described it as “Hitchcock scraping bottom” and New York Times critic Eugene Archer called it “Hitchcock’s most disappointing film in years.” More recent appraisals have been far kinder. Richard Brody, in the The New Yorker, went so far as to call Marnie “Hitchcock’s best film.” Graham’s work has also enjoyed a revival due in part to the success of the Poldark television series, based on some of his novels. And the opera restores the darker atmosphere and ending of the novel.
Still, part of the fun of experiencing this opera – and it is fun – comes from revisiting the movie (available on Amazon Prime) as preparation. It is Hitchcock’s most operatic film. And with a mise-en-scène featuring exaggerated colors, intentionally artificial backdrops, and a swooping Bernard Herrmann score, together with an intense focus on sexual psychology, repression, lust, and violence, all revolving around a femme fatale, it is also the “Hitch-iest.”
Marnie is the story of a sexually frigid kleptomaniac (Marnie) who takes on multiple identities. Mark, her wealthy employer, blackmails her into marriage and tries to rape her on their honeymoon. He gives her a life of privilege, but she is deeply unhappy and has a sort of breakdown during a dramatic fox hunt. Ultimately, she learns the truth about a nightmarish trauma from her childhood and, in a bit of pop psychology, breaks free from her demons just before being arrested for her crimes, leaving her future uncertain.
The opera is written in two acts, each totally different in both text and score. The libretto for the first act is fast-moving and full of suspense. But in the second act, things bog down with a series of distracting subplots including, for example, Mark’s disputes with his brother, Terry, over the family business. But this act also includes the strongest scenes in the opera, including Marnie’s visit to a psychoanalyst, the fox hunt, which functions as a mad scene, and the riveting final scenes.
Wright’s libretto is frequently poetic, with lines like Marnie’s “I’ll be there for myself; that’s all I know for now.” But awkward clichés abound.
Muhly’s score for the first act is built around a propulsive minimalism that often sounds like something from Philip Glass or John Adams but with a spikier texture and a range of gripping sounds, including exotic percussion and woodwind sounds and edgy brass. The second act is much more lyrical and neo-Romantic. And while the first act often falls into repetitive patterns that go on too long and become tedious, the last act features more variety and color in the score.
Muhly is a master of choral writing, and in Marnie he makes extensive, imaginative use of the chorus, ranging from cacophonous office chatter to ordering drinks at a bar and from gossip reminiscent of Benjamin Britten to Anglican ecclesiastical sounds at the finale. A quartet of Marnie doppelgangers, ghosts of her previous identities, sing madrigal harmonies, adding another layer to the score. Each major character is shadowed by a particular instrument, a technique that is especially effective in the case of Marnie, paired with an oboe.
The significant flaws in Muhly’s score have to do with the writing for the singers, much of which is monotonous arioso that advances the story but is neither natural nor lyric. This is partly because there are just too many words in Wright’s libretto. Muhly’s arias are expressive, but too often they are not the kind that show off the beauty of the voice. Still, the big scenes stand out, in part because so much of the evening is bland.
This is especially true for Marnie, whose music is mostly restrained. Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard gave a finely nuanced performance in the role. In her big scenes like the second-act monologue, during which she removes bandages from a suicide attempt, she conveys rich emotional depth. These monologues, called “links” by Muhly, provide insight into her psychological state but are musically so similar and so subtle that the music frequently goes unnoticed as you concentrate on the text. Leonard is a charismatic singer, and she commands the stage – which, in this opera, she almost never leaves.
Baritone Christopher Maltman portrayed Mark Rutland, Marnie’s husband, with power, finesse, and restraint. His role is problematic: He’s the cad who blackmailed Marnie into marriage and then assaulted her, but he tries mightily to protect her. That this isn’t better exploited in the writing isn’t Maltman’s fault. Countertenor Iestyn Davies was ideal as Terry Rutland, Mark’s scheming brother and rival, turning his voice into a cold, sharp weapon.
Mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves was marvelous in the meaty role of Marnie’s mother, secure right down into the contralto range. Tenor Anthony Dean Griffey was superb as Mr. Strutt, Marnie’s boss and victim, prior to Rutland. Soprano Janice Kelly brought authority to the role of Mrs. Rutland, Mark’s mother.
This was conductor Robert Spano’s Met debut, and he was an inspired choice. Spano is best known for his facility with modern works, including elaborate choral works (his Atlanta Symphony Orchestra has one of the world’s great choruses). He has extensive experience with the works of John Adams, and he confidently brought order to Muhly’s frequent torrents of sound, focusing attention on the critical elements.
Mayer’s production is elegant, efficient, and cinematic. Rapid scene changes are handled with dispatch thanks to high-quality projections and a labyrinth of movable screens. The male dancers are surprisingly effective, especially in the fox–hunting scene, tumbling athletically with the energy of galloping horses.
Arianne Phillips‘ bright pastel costumes evoke the ’50s with a surreal edge not unlike that of the Hitchcock movie.
One reason Marnie works is simply that it’s a ripping good drama. You want to know what will happen next, so your attention never flags. There are stretches in the score that are banal, repetitive, and even boring, but there is also brilliant, exciting music, especially for the orchestra and chorus. Muhly is a major talent. And here he has been blessed with an ideal cast and a brilliant production. The opening night audience was enthusiastic, and rightly so.
Marnie continues at the Metropolitan Opera through Nov. 10. For information and tickets, go here.
James L. Paulk is a freelance critic based in New York.