Luckily Alfred Hitchcock did not have the last word. In its new, operatic form, “Marnie” is an interesting work, not necessarily in spite of its flaws but perhaps because of them. Composed by Nico Muhly with a libretto by Nicholas Wright, the opera ended its run at the Metropolitan Opera last Saturday with a live HD transmission. Prior to that I was fortune to see it in the house.
For better or worse, what consistently drives “Marnie” is the drama. The problem? What works best on the page doesn’t necessarily work all that well on the stage. The basis of both the opera and the Alfred Hitchcock film of the same title is a 1961 novel by Winston Graham, author of the “Poldark” series. Narrated by the title character, “Marnie” is the story of a thief who steals from her employers and continually changes her identity to conceal her crimes. She’s caught in the act by Mark Rutland, head of his family’s publishing firm who’s obsessed with her. He essentially blackmails her into marriage though she has an absolute horror of sex. Her refusal to sleep with him culminates in what is now legally known as marital rape. Despite this (or perhaps because of it), Mark continually protects Marnie as her past begins to catch up with her.
To say this is not your usual operatic subject is an understatement.
In resetting the work to 1958, the opera’s creative team made some alterations to the story, both major and minor. I think it was a mistake to make Mark’s mother something of a villain—I missed the cordial relationship Marnie has with her in the book, as well as her friendship with several of Mark’s tenants, all of which serve to present a warmer side of the character. Further, the original Terry is Mark’s cousin, not his brother as he is in the opera, and the corporate in-fighting between them plays a far larger and more bitter role in the novel. It’s Mark, not his mother, who’s behind a buy-out and later a sale of the company, thus triggering Terry, who knows full well of Mark’s obsession with Marnie, to retaliate by reporting her to the police. Most importantly, though, in a nod to more enlightened sensibilities, the creative team has turned Mark’s rape of Marnie into an attempt rather than a completed act, which is immediately followed by a stunning visual (in silhouette) of her suicide attempt. While this change was certainly welcome, I thought the operatic team should have picked up on Graham’s strong hint that Marnie had been sexually abused as a child by at least one of her mother’s “customers” during the latter’s time as a prostitute.
“Marnie” proves that Nico Muhly has grown enormously as an opera composer since “Two Boys.” He’s writing more closely to character now, and the music becomes more lyrical as the opera unfolds, especially in the second act. Muhly is celebrated for his choral writing, but perhaps we have too much of a good thing here. The first act chorus of office workers commenting on the storm and stress of Marnie’s life is somewhat excessive, and goes beyond just covering one of her fifteen (!) costume changes. On the other hand, his writing for the chorus at the country club dinner, and particularly at the hunt and at Marnie’s mother’s graveside, is spot on. Best of all are the Shadow Marnies, the four singers who frequently accompany her and illustrate her state of mind. Muhly directs them to sing in vibrato-less fashion, which results in an eerie sound perfectly suited to a psychological thriller. It’s an updated version of the theremin soundtrack used so often in 1940’s movies to underscore disturbed characters (See “Spellbound” and “The Lost Weekend”). The Shadow Marnies’ list of her many aliases in the opera’s final scene is particularly chilling, and they provide a great visual, especially during Marnie’s sessions with a psychiatrist, as they literally take turns on the couch.
Even the critics who panned the opera have applauded the production, and rightly so. Designed by Julian Crouch and directed by Michael Meyer, creator of the Met’s Las Vegas “Rigoletto,” this is the best I’ve seen at the Met since Robert Carsen’s “Der Rosenkavalier” of two seasons ago. Some choices seemed odd at first, especially the appearance of several male dancers in gray suits and fedoras during Marnie’s first theft—I thought they were plainclothes detectives. However, they’re put to excellent use during the hunt scene as they embody the tumult that ends in Marnie’s destroying her injured horse, Forio. Speaking of gray suits, the 1950’s costumes, designed by Arianne Phillips, were classic, and stylishly worn by both principals and choristers. What a welcome sight to see such a unified vision on stage.
The cast couldn’t have been better. Muhly wrote the opera with Isabel Leonard in mind, and the role suits her to a T, both vocally and dramatically—plus she looked fantastic in her ’50’s wardrobe (all fifteen outfits). Christopher Maltman brought some gravitas to the obsessed Mark; his besotted gaze at Ms. Leonard when she tied his black tie but continually turned his head away from her, spoke volumes. His diction was superb, to the extent that I didn’t need the titles when he sang. Iestyn Davies was perfect casting for the slippery Terry; Muhly rightly illustrated the character’s observation to Marnie in the novel that “We’re two of a kind” by scoring Terry for countertenor, thus having him share a good portion of her mezzo-soprano vocal range. The supporting cast was likewise excellent, including Janis Kelly as Mark’s mother, and Anthony Dean Griffey (Mr. Strutt) and Denyce Graves, still in terrific voice as Marnie’s mother, both back at the Met after many years.
While I think “Marnie” is a good work, as opposed to a great one, it makes me want to hear more from Nico Muhly. He’s only 37. I’m eager to see what he does next.