Packed into the new opera “Marnie,” Freud, Jung, the #MeToo Movement and the conventions of psychological thrillers are all traveling companions.
Co-commissioned by the Metropolitan and English National Operas, “Marnie” is a contemporary work based on post-World War II tropes. A young, beautiful English woman with a troubled childhood takes a series of jobs in male-dominated London businesses. Gorgeous and mysterious, she is the object of “the male gaze,” another thematic gift from the period. Motivated by wartime hardship, Marnie finds a way to scam everyone. She finagles her way into positions of trust, steals company payrolls and moves on.
Based on Winston Graham’s 1961 mystery novel of the same name, the book so captivated Alfred Hitchcock that he spared no time bringing out his 1964 film – with a few changes. Hitchcock moved the story from London to Philadelphia. He tossed Britain’s post-war struggle, cast Tippi Hedren in the title role and Sean Connery as her quasi prince charming bent on a rescue mission.
It’s now 2018, and American composer Nico Muhly and his librettist Nicholas Wright chose the Graham novel over the movie and avoided Hitchcock’s altered ending.
Still, the story is stuck in its time, a throwback about a crafty woman who takes on different names and identities each time she changes jobs. The opera’s winning conceit is to encircle Marnie with four shadows of herself. It’s a device straight out of Jungian psychology. The shadows are look-alike aspects of Marnie and provide a haunting Greek chorus to boot.
Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard sings the title role and baritone Christopher Maltman portrays Mark Rutland, the smitten boss who replaces the money Marnie stole, searches for, finds and, despite everything, marries her. Did I mention this is basically a male fantasy?
The honeymoon, however, is neither honeyed nor moonlit. It’s anxiety-ridden, stress-laden, and full of rage and terror. More won’t be written here, but afterward, there’s more plot unraveling, some of which involves Marnie’s mother, sung by the magnificent Denyce Graves.
A year ago, the opera premiered in London with a different cast. You can watch excerpts on YouTube. The British production featured Sasha Cooke and Daniel Okulitch.
British and American reviews have generally praised the performers and the spectacular production, envisioned by in-demand Michael Mayer with a set by Julian Crouch and 59 Projections. Expect slippery sliding screens, a generally gray, corporate atmosphere, but colorful, chic ’60s costumes.
Reviews have been divided with the Guardian praising composer Muhly, who “twins each protagonist with an orchestral instrument. An oboe, by turns elegant and shrill, probes Marnie’s psyche. Growling trombones suggest Mark’s desire,” etc.
The Washington Post has been caustic. Critic Anne Midgette wrote: “Muhly is a deeply gifted composer” who apparently succumbed to his collaborator’s “sophomoric” libretto, sinking under the weight of “purple language” and clichés. Ouch.
Critical disagreement and the general fuss about a new opera may encourage opera lovers to see, listen and judge for oneself.
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.