The plot of ‘Marnie’ has all the prime ingredients for dramatic classic opera: childhood secrets, multiple identities, unspoken feelings, disturbing relationships, kleptomania, lust, sex, treachery, betrayal and subterfuge. In creating his brand new opera for ENO and the Met in New York, American composer Nico Muhly turned not to the “insane sadism” of Alfred Hitchcock’s film (and his disturbing obsession with Tippi Hidren who starred as his eponymous heroine), but to the novel by Winston Graham, author of the ‘Poldark’ series, on which Nicholas Wright based the libretto. Comparisons will inevitably be made with the film and the novel, but I deliberately avoided seeing the film ahead of the premiere and have not read the book. Muhly brings the action back to England (as in the book) and the first act opens in a drab 1950s office in Birmingham before moving to Barnet and Beaconsfield.
One of the key themes explored in the opera is the control and objectification of women via the lustful male gaze. This of course is up-to-the-minute topical and lends an additional frisson to the drama. Throughout Marnie is being watched, tracked and objectified – from her first meeting with Mark Rutland to the queasily flirtatious encounter with his brother Terry (brilliantly sung by counter-tenor James Laing, whose voice is by turns wheedling and shrill). To emphasise this further, she is stalked by a group of sinister men in grey suits and homburg hats, who step in and out of the shadowy corners of Marnie’s conscious and the set, providing a constant masculine antagonism (both physical and metaphorical), and whose writhing dancing also serves to inform the narrative.
It is the psychology of Marnie herself on which the plot hinges and music is the means by which her secrets are unlocked. Instruments at their highest and lowest registers (specifically a solo oboe) become the mouthpieces for her when she is under the most extreme pressure. In the same way, each instrument is paired with a character in order to express his or her unspoken feelings. In a narrative where people are continually lying, the orchestra, by contrast, never lies: Mark Rutland’s lust is expressed by the trombone, while Terry’s loucheness is portrayed by a sleazy sinewy trumpet motif. Thus sound is used to convey powerful emotions in a way the text or action don’t always inform us: trembling slicing strings, frenetic percussion, shrill yet haunting woodwind, together with urgent agitato rhythms or long layers of sound and spooling melodies. The splendid ENO chorus is also used to great effect, acting at times like a Greek chorus to comment on the action, taunting Marnie or revealing her inner thoughts. Her psyche is further expressed through four Marnie-clones, whose vividly-coloured costumes vibrate against the drab set. These “Shadow Marnies”, as Muhly calls them, are particular effective in the psychiatric analysis scene in Act II where they interchange with one another and Marnie herself, suggesting her confused mindset as she confronts her complex emotional landscape and troubled past.
Sasha Cooke as Marnie is marvellous, her mezzo voice resonant and expressive (and brilliantly sustained throughout as she barely leaves the stage during the entire opera), and her interactions with Mark Rutland, sensitively played by David Okulitch, who succeeds in appearing both sexually predatory and vulnerable (and as a consequence one of the more sympathetic characters in a cast of generally unlikeable people) are edgy and compelling in their portrayal of this couple’s difficult relationship. Lesley Garrett makes a wonderful cameo appearance as Mrs Rutland, the manipulative matriarch.
The costumes, designed by Arianne Phillips, are fabulous – deeply evocative of the era (late 1950s) and a hommage to the Hitchcock film too. Martyn Brabbins, in his first appearance as the new director of music of ENO, conducts with subtle sensitivity, while the spare set and staging allows characters and music to come to the fore with tautly-paced drama (at times almost unbearably tense, particularly in the first act) and moments of deeply disquieting dramatic irony. The only longueur for me was the fox hunting scene (used in the narrative as a metaphor for Marnie’s constant flight from her past and her persecutors). Not easy to stage, it was cleverly organised with a projection of galloping hooves, but it was not entirely convincing and was rather too drawn out.
Overall, a compelling and enigmatic psycho-thriller.
‘Marnie’ continues in repertory at English National Opera