Composer: Nico Muhly
Conductor: Robert Spano
Librettist: Nicholas Wright
Producer/Director: Michael Mayer
Isabel Leonard: Marnie
Christopher Maltman: Mark Rutland
Iestyn Davies: Terry Rutland
Denyce Graves: Marnie’s Mother
Janis Kelly: Mrs. Rutland
Because the Met is so stingy when it comes to new operas – We are typically granted one a season – each one of them is a drop-everything-and-go event. This season, I was all the more intrigued by the offering, Nico Muhly’s Marnie, as it is based on a book by Winston Gresham that inspired Hitchcock to make a film, a few scenes of which have remained ingrained in my memory since I first saw it as a young child – The raging storm! The red flashes! The doomed horse! – never mind that I had no idea what it was all about at the time. Who would have thought that my conservative grand-parents would be the ones accidentally introducing me to what is routinely considered the master of suspense’s most disturbing film during summer vacation?
Another reason to go is that I have always enjoyed Nico Muhly’s music, from short pieces to his first opera Two Boys, and I welcome opportunities to discover more. I was also looking forward to hearing Isabel Leonard, a rising star whose talent I had heard countless good things about, but never got to experience live. This season, however, I will be catching up with her not once or twice, but three times, since I will also be checking her out in Pelléas et Mélisande and Le dialogue des Carmélites.
Last, but not least, it was so heartening to see a younger than usual audience in an almost full house for a modern opera on a Monday night at the Met.
It’s no wonder that the book caught the attention of Alfred Hitchcock back in the early 1960s, even if he ended up taking large liberties with it. The story of a young kleptomaniac whose mental disorder and consequential odd behavior stems from way back in her childhood, Marnie has many ingredients of a good film or opera with a heroine with multiple personalities, a fair amount of suspense, the indispensable love story, even if in this case it is hard to come by, and 1950s England. What's not to love?
With her petite frame, fashionable looks and expressive singing, mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard was a wonderfully mysterious and oh so troubled Marnie. Although her voice is not big, it has an appealing slightly dark quality, and she used it expertly to convey Marnie’s unstable personality. Add to that some impressive acting skills, and we had an exceptionally well-rounded, delicately nuanced performance.
Baritone Christopher Maltman was a handsome Mark Rutland, a widower so taken with Marnie that he blackmailed her into marriage in order to try to figure her out. Part the ultimate male chauvinist pig who stops at nothing to get what he wants, part genuinely caring companion who stops at nothing to help his wife get better, Maltman successfully treaded the treacherous fine line of the challenging part.
Countertenor Iestyn Davies was his deliciously sleazy brother Terry, a man who has trouble taking no for an answer. The poker scene with Marnie was as uncomfortable as it was engrossing, and that was obviously just the tip of the iceberg. He may not have been the big boss in the family business, but he eventually ran the show on the stage.
Legendary mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves had a couple of blink-and-you’ll-miss scenes, except that, even if you had blinked, you could not have missed her unmistakable presence and stunning singing as Marnie’s disabled and bitter mother. Not to be outdone, soprano Janis Kelly was equally remarkable in her own few scenes as Mark’s implacably assertive mother.
Marnie’s four shadows, who were four singers at times accompanying Marnie musically and physically to convey her multiple personalities, were a mixed blessing as they were as dazzling as distracting. The Met chorus, being his typical excellent self, compellingly fleshed out the crowd scenes, whether in a bustling office or in a packed pub.
Michael Mayer’s slick modern production had an irresistible cinematic look and rhythm to it. The several panels on which various images, including large portraits of Marnie, were projected slid effortlessly during the many transitions, and the 1950s outfits were vibrantly colorful and delightfully stylish. Marnie being a loner by default, it was kind of shocking to see her so frequently surrounded not only by her four shadows, but also by a bunch of men seemingly preying over her. Although we understand that it is all in her head, all this agitation got to become borderline obnoxious.
Some moments powerfully came together though, such as Marnie’s blurry silhouette and then distinct hand appearing from behind a frosted glass panel that suddenly turned bright red when, after her husband attempted to rape her during their honeymoon, she slashed her wrist in the bathroom. Or the scene in the psychiatric office where the truth about the childhood trauma began to unravel. (Get ready for a healthy dose of family drama and pop psychology).
Nico Muhly’s score is an intriguing, often spell-binding, mix of baroque and contemporary, which is after all not that surprising since the composer is a modern young man fascinated by Renaissance choral music. Unsurprisingly, the meticulous pointillism worked very well for atmosphere creation, but it was less conducive to keeping the audience on their toes. There were some intense moments for sure, such as the frantic pace of the office or the heated confrontation on the ship, but at other times, I felt a lack of momentum creeping up.
Robert Spano, making his long-overdue debut at the Met, led an excellent performance of the tricky composition, effectively bringing out its exciting idiosyncrasies, its intricate rhythms, its overall eeriness, as well as its discreet lyricism that perked up now and then. Possibly thrilled about sinking their teeth into a cool new work, the musicians played with dynamism and confidence.
Some may say that Marnie, with its undeniable sexism, is kind of an odd choice for a new opera in our me-too era, but it is also easy to see what could make it an attractive subject, especially in the hands of the right artists. And attractive it was.