After Dark Sisters and Two Boys, composer Nico Muhly returns to opera by adapting Winston Graham’s 1961 novel Marnie. Premiered in 2017 at the English National Opera in London, Marnie is currently at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and is currently performing in theatres.
Stealing, changing identities, starting over. This is the life of Marnie, the protagonist of Winston Graham’s novel made famous by Alfred Hitchcock’s movie of 1964.
This vicious cycle is interrupted by Mark Rutland, a businessman she knew from her previous employer, who recognizes her and catches her in the act.
But instead of reporting her to the police, Rutland offers to marry her in exchange for his silence.
This dramatic twist completely shifts our view on the characters: from the scammer in control of the situation, Marnie becomes a powerless victim, and Rutland, the charming seducer, turns into a manipulative perv.
Rutland is pleased at having trapped the thief and exerting power over her through blackmail. She is only a commodity for him, an object, so he doesn’t mind trying to rape her, leading her to a suicide attempt.
A societal hold
It is impossible not to see the link between Marnie and the #meToo movement against harassment and sexual violence.
In the booklet, playwright Nicholas Wright gives Marnie the line: “Do you understand what I mean when I say No,” a sentence that echoes the debate on consent.
Stuck in a power struggle, Marnie cannot push away this unwanted man, just as Tippi Hedren, Marnie’s star, was unable to avoid Hitchcock’s advances, as he (in Harvey Weinstein’s style) threatened to ruin her acting career.
Like Nora Helmer in Doll’s House, Marnie is also bound to the social norms of her time, a male-dominated society, where women, infantilized, and there only to serve or to decorate. In the private sphere, women are wives (or prospective brides) and mothers, and if they work, they are still at the service of men, as secretaries or prostitutes.
Baritone Christopher Maltman (Rutland) successfully embodies the arrogance and perversity of the boss’s son, with a certain vulnerability that was absent in the macho played by Sean Connery. As in Thomas Adès’ Exterminating Angel, countertenor Ienstyn Davies portrays a scornful and despicable bourgeois.
His Terry Maltman, does not conceal the doubtful reasons behind his quest for truth with Marnie, as she refuses him. Janis Kelly is a compelling Mrs. Rutland, in her attempt to save the family business and handle her spoiled children, and Denyce Graves, embodies in a stunning way Marnie’s mother, as well as all the bitterness and despair of the English working class in the twentieth century.
Awareness and liberation
The superb rendition of Marnie by Isabel Leonard‘s makes this tragedy almost tangible. The mezzo-soprano creates a disturbed and moving character who elicits our empathy and delivers a remarkable artistic performance: despite the difficulties of the score, her vocal line is precise and steady and her tone rich and warm.
From a victim of circumstances, she becomes a woman on the path of self-discovery and empowerment.
As in the book, written from the protagonist’s point of view, the opera sees the story through her eyes of unreliable narrator. Marnie’s alienation keeps us in anguish as we wait for the final unveiling and the revelation of the traumatism that led to her compulsive behaviour.
An inner choir
Director Michael Mayer has the brilliant idea of depicting Marnie’s dissociative disorder visually, accompanying her with four women resembling her (the shadow Marnies). In graphical and colourful costumes, inspired by the 1950s England and designed by Arianne Phillips, Deanna Breiwick, Dísella Lárusdóttir, Rebecca Ringle Kamarei and Peabody Southwell embody the protagonist’s multiple personalities and materialize her guilt, anguish and pain.
For this women’s choir, Nico Muhly chooses the sounds of early music with long vibrato-free lines on which elegant variations unfold, giving this mirror of the subconscious a timeless and irrealistic aspect.
Five characters in search of self-determination
Nico Muhly delivers Marnie’s story through visual and descriptive music that moves the action forward but also lingers on the psychology of the characters. The various instruments depict the inner voices and the innuendoes, such as Marnie’s beautiful oboe, which provides us with exquisite contemplative musical patterns.
The only true aria, when Marnie talks about her horse (I see Florio), the only subject worthy of her love, is followed by a superb hunting scene where, with neither foxes nor horses in sight, the composer and director manage to create a compelling and dynamic tableau. The passionate choreography of the dancers leads the drama to its climax with the death of Florio and Rutland’s fall from the horse.
This opera production cleverly combines music, drama and theatre and engages the audience while encouraging them to step into the shoes of a woman in quest of freedom and self-determination.
I am free, she states in the last scene, with the handcuffs tightening her wrists. She will go to jail, but she will finally be freed from the oppressive guilt and from her jailer.