Opera: Nico Muhly / Marnie

The Metropolitan Opera (2018)
Nico Muhly
Libretto by Nicholas Wright, based on the the novel by Winston Graham
Isabel Leonard (Marnie), Christopher Maltman (Mark Rutland), Iestyn Davies (Terry Rutland),  Janis Kelly (Mrs. Rutland), Denyce Graves (Marnie’s Mother), and Robert Spano (Conductor)

Looking in on The Metropolitan Opera’s Marnie today. With music by Nico Muhly and libretto by Nicholas Wright,  the production is from 2018, following on the heels of the world premiere of the work in 2017 by the English National Opera. It is Muhly’s second opera, his first effort being 2005’s Two Boys.

Unlike most operas, I knew the ending from having seen the film. At least I admit it! In the interviews I’ve seen and heard, Muhly and Wright play it strangely coy about the relationship of their work to that of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1964 film. Both men mention the film in passing as if they are only vaguely aware of its existence. This strains credibility. To say that you were inspired to adapt some obscure novel from 1961 and yet only be vaguely aware that the book was made into a classic film by one of the top directors of the 20th century takes us through a masterclass in eyeroll. But it’s understandable if they don’t want their opera slagged off as employing the Broadway-ish tactic of aligning a work with existing cultural artifacts.

For those who have seen the movie, the plot of the opera is much the same with only minor variations. The ending is different so I’ll leave that a question mark for you to entice you too to see Marnie sometime.

As much as I want to separate the opera from the movie version, immediately I hear something to link the two. Bernard Herrmann composed his last Hitchcock score for the film version of Marnie, and I swear Muhly is paying homage to him in the opening prelude. But it’s not from the score of Marnie – sounds to me like a lightning flurry of quotations from Herrmann’s score for North By Northwest, which if my ears don’t lie seems to me a clever touch.

As this short opening prelude unfolds the scene is a typing pool (yes that’s what they called them before everyone had PCs) in a mid-20th century office with the main character Marnie in the center and ther rest in drab gray clothing to set her off in near-comic contrast. A little heavy-handed, but effective. But what are they saying here — that honest women are dull?

When the work bell rings and the office shuts down for the day, Marnie lays in wait so she can get into the company safe to steal a big haul. As she opens the safe with a stolen combination note, several men in suits converge on her from all sides. They don’t have vocal parts and they don’t say anything and they stay in the shadows, careful to not step into the path of any follow-spot. These guys will appear at regular intervals in the opera ostensibly to indicate Marnie’s paranoia with men in her repressed and larcenous past. From there she flees the office, bleaches her raven-black hair blonde and leaves town to seek a new employer-victim in, ahem, virgin territory. When she finds a new chump in Mark Rutland, the head of a large publishing firm who hires her, Rutland confronts her with what he knows of her illegal activities, offering to trade his silence for her love. Freudian hijinks spring from this strange bargain, consuming the remainder of the opera’s plot for its 2:30 duration.

Isabel Leonard is flawless as Marnie (alias Margaret Edgar alias Marion Holland alias Mary Taylor alias Martha Heilbron etc). Her voice seems perfect for the music and the character, and her beauty is a powerful component that makes the story more believable. I wonder if this would work quite as well if you had a sensational soprano who was somewhat plain in appearance. The make-up department can only do so much, and for this character exceptional beauty would seem to be a requirement for suspension of disbelief.

Christopher Maltman is fine as male lead Mark Rutland. If his acting projects little of the film actor Sean Connery‘s smooth, obsessed tower of masculinity, his voice has the power to project much the same thing. It should be said that the Mark Rutland of the opera version of Marnie is a more vulnerable character than that in Hitchcock’s creation. In the film, the character of Mark is less involved with loving Marnie than in stalking her like a big game hunter; the opera Mark Rutland seems to be a smitten follower, simply reacting to conditions. The dynamic is maybe less compelling that way but opens up more possibilities between the two personalities.

The music of Marnie is tonally modern, fairly accessible, orchestrated with great transparency and lots of movement. The choruses employed are fairly large for a small story like this one; the typing pool, the guests at the party and a few other groups chime in at intervals to add strong dynamics to what otherwise is an intime small-cast affair. Added to that vocal tapestry are four women in identical hairdos acting as some kind of Greek chorus for Marnie’s inner demons or misguided id or whatever. The little 4-part harmony interjections from this brace of women are really nicely composed, in keeping with the pattern to the music in this opera: Musical complexity and density without pain.

I had two problems with Marnie. One is that the composer, as talented as he is and as sophisticated as his harmonic language shows itself, does not move me with his brand of vocal melody. He likes to substitute traditional aria structure with something he calls ‘links’ in an attempt to avoid cessation of action. Nice idea, but I kept wishing for an iconic solo that never appeared. The duets are well-conceived and well-sung, but to me they don’t seem to really blend. Every time two characters got into a dialogue I was waiting to be transported and most of the time I was left at the gate. If composers of modern opera are allergic to arias that’s ok with me, but you don’t have to deliberately keep yourself from ever repeating a sequence of more than 3 notes out of paranoia that it might be labeled Broadway kitsch.

The other problem is the role of Mark Rutland’s younger brother Terry. He is presented as a geeky twerp with an obsession with Marnie that leads to attempts at blackmail. If this isn’t enough to put you off, they make him up with a huge port wine stain on his face and score his voice for countertenor. Countertenor! Why? Every scene he was in made me want to leave the room when he fired up that piccolo of a voice of his. I’m not sure I’m the better for having stayed to watch – it seems like misguided duty. Is modern opera not difficult enough without this type of character scripting tomfoolery?

Also, this character was refashioned from a much more interesting one in the film – the stepsister Lil, played by Diane Baker. With her nosy intrigues, lust for adopted brother Mark, and dark hair done to perfection in a precise early-1960s-vintage flip, she was extremely watchable in a role that was as inviting as the role of Terry is repellent.

But with its flaws Marnie is still a pretty cool property. Lots of invention in the concept and staging, serviceable music that is complex yet approachable, and a plot with a minimum of operatic muddle. Worth a look-see.