Nico Muhly’s new opera Marnie at the Met

Nico Muhly returns to the Metropolitan Opera* with his new opera Marnie, based on the 1961 novel by Winston Graham, published 20 years before the composer was born. Steeped in Graham’s novel, and to some extent Alfred Hitchcock’s film from 1964, I found this Marnie compelling, emotionally charged at times, at other times, like Marnie herself, cool and distant, but consistently an engaging experience, both dramatically and musically.

Isabel Leonard is Marnie

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Central to the plot and to this production is, of course, the title character. Graham’s novel is written in the first person, all Marnie, her voice, her thoughts, her musings, what she hears, etc. From the novel one expects, at least I did, more introspective musings from her character. I mean, after all, opera certainly is the venue for musing aloud, giving airs, venting to the Family Circle. Isabel Leonard’s Marnie remains the center of attention but in the opera, set to a libretto by Nicholas Wright and directed by Michael Mayer, meaningful gestures, postures, poses, and action are added to her vocals. The character is there, just not always singing.

Marnie in therapy, surrounded by the Shadow Marnies

Marnie in therapy, surrounded by the Shadow Marnies

Happily, Leonard is a fine actress. As in the book she can be inconspicuous at times, part of her plan not to be ‘memorable,’ tense when cornered, sometimes cold and calculating, untouchable, self-destructive, and a downright liar, but the Marnie inside (as one learns from the novel) is always conscious of whom she pretends to be at the moment, of whom she was in the past, but also when she can be her real self (that is, as much of her ‘real’ self as she knows). So she is not a multiple personality, as hinted by the frequent appearance and commentary of the cleverly conceived four Shadow Marnies (Deanna Breiwick, Dísella Lárusdóttir, Rebecca Ringle Kamarei, and Peabody Southwell). Yes, Marnie has assumed several identities for her thefts, but they are carefully concocted disguises, temporary, used and discarded, not coexisting personalities unaware of each other’s presence. Under the mask of each identity Marnie gets a job, steals from the business and then disappears without a trace. She gives much of her take to her ailing Mother, sung dramatically by Denise Graves. It is obvious Mother does not love her much, so why does she keep coming back? The death years ago of her baby brother haunts Marnie.

Marnie and Mark Rutland, played by Christopher Maltman

Marnie and Mark Rutland, played by Christopher Maltman

Of course crime doesn’t pay. Her new employer Mark Rutland, sung solidly by Christopher Maltman, hires her, but he also falls in love with her. She is shocked when he says he remembers her from an encounter at a previous job. She is also recognized by a Mr. Strutt, sung by Anthony Dean Griffey, from whom, at this previous job under a different identity, she stole the payroll and disappeared.

Mr. Strutt eyes Marnie suspiciously

Mr. Strutt eyes Marnie suspiciously

Mark learns through Strutt the extent of her crime spree and strives to get Marnie in a position to come clean, make amends, and also possibly move herself toward a real human relationship with him. Mark even offers to pay back all of the money she stole. Marnie, resistant, plots to run from his help by stealing again and leaving the country.

But a terrible riding accident, the death of her Mother, and a trap set by Terry, Mark’s devious brother (sung chillingly by Iestyn Davies) bring Marnie to a chance at psychological release from her horrible prison of guilt.

Julian Crouch and 59 Productions created the sets and projection design here. The changes in scenery are fluidly and effortlessly done, the furniture quietly and gracefully set and removed by balletic men in suits. The colors and scenic projections are effective, including a tsunami of images of Marnie’s face early on and later.

Marnie and her beloved horse Florio (not portrayed here) leaps the fence, pursued by Mark

Marnie and her beloved horse Florio (not portrayed here) leaps the fence, pursued by Mark

I confess to wondering days before my Monday with Marnie how the fox hunt and horse riding accident scenes would be staged, these, back to back, being rather central parts to Marnie’s psychological journey in the novel. As much through Muhly’s increasingly tense music matched by the fast moving projections do we hear and see the suggestions of the hounds tearing apart the poor fox, Marnie’s reaction to this being deep, searing psychic pain. It’s followed quickly by Marnie’s horse Florio galloping wildly out of control, their fall, her injuries and the mercy killing of Florio, much to Marnie’s horror and real physical pain. Mark too, who has tried to stop Florio before he jumps, is nearly killed as well by his falling horse. Now with Mark in the hospital, Marnie’s last theft and flight to France will be easy…but she can’t.

Marnie’s story is not the only thread running through the opera. There are shifting allegiances in the Rutland family, behind-the-back dealings within the company, to some degree class warfare…

Others in the fairly large cast include Marie Te Hapuku as Miss Fedder in Strutt’s office, Gabriel Gurevich as the Little Boy, whom Marnie’s Mother dotes on (you’ll figure out why), Jane Bunnell as Lucy, Mother’s neighbor, Stacey Tappan as Dawn, Marnie’s work and gambling buddy, Will Liverman as Malcolm Fleet and Ashley Emerson as Laura Fleet, both fellow gamblers at Terry’s house, Janis Kelly as Mrs. Rutland, Mark’s mother, a real schemer, Ian Koziara as Derek and James Courtney as Dr. Roman, the Psychiatrist.

The Metropolitan Opera Chorus assumes various social stations throughout the opera; they serve to break the flow of the frequently used Sprechstimme of the soloists.

Muhly’s score is complex yet simple, consistently satisfying: it’s conspicuous how smoothly it develops and progresses through the drama, how characters are given instruments as part of their aural identities. Robert Spano, who is Music Director of the Atlanta Symphony, conducts in his Metropolitan Opera debut.

The costumes by Arianne Phillips capture England in the early 1950s, especially the differences in class; Lynne Page’s choreography gives us intentional dancing, but also the coordinated fluid movements of the aforementioned prop shifters.

Paul Cremo, the Met’s dramaturg, started the project rolling: Marnie was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera and co-produced by the English National Opera, where it premiered in 2017.

In sum, Muhly’s Marnie is a winner. Should be quite engaging also in HD.

Photos by: Ken Howard.

Review performance: Monday, October 22, Its 2nd at the Met.

*Muhly’s first opera at the Met, Two Boys in the fall of 2013, was well received, as should be this one.

The Met’s premiere production of Marnie is performed in two acts with one rather long intermission. The running time of the HD performance is about three hours. Marnie is sung in English.

Enjoy! Another nice evening, October still a beautiful month. Happy Halloween, kids!