Isabel Leonard (seated) in the title role of Nico Muhly’s “Marnie” with (l. to r.) Dísella Lárusdóttir, Peabody Southwell, Deanna Breiwick, and Rebecca Ringle Kamarei as the Shadow Marnies.
(Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)
The Magic Flute this is not. The Metropolitan Opera continues its artistic relationship with composer Nico Muhly with the boundary-pushing Marnie, a brooding tale of deception set in 1959 England. A visual feast, Marnie occasionally manages to elicit empathy from its unlikeable cast of characters, no small feat when the players are stealing, blackmailing, and making unwanted sexual advances.
Legendary filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock also saw potential in Winston Graham’s novel, which he adapted into a movie starring Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery. Mr. Muhly, along with librettist Nicholas Wright and director Michael Mayer (Head Over Heels, Hedwig and the Angry Inch) rely on the book as well for the opera’s structure, which follows Marnie (Isabel Leonard), a grifter who repeatedly changes her identity only to get caught and blackmailed into marriage by Mark Rutland (Christopher Maltman), a business executive who recognizes her from one of her previous schemes. Rutland’s brother Terry (Iestyn Davies delivering a bristling countertenor) also smarmily attempts to have his way with her, all of which echoes Marnie’s upbringing in a house of ill repute, where her mother (Denyce Graves) used to turn tricks with the local sailors.
The reasons behind Marnie’s life of corruption and deceit might be rooted in the deep-seated guilt over the death of her younger brother, but the shadows of her past are not what they seem to be, as finally revealed by her mother’s neighbor Lucy (Jane Bunnell).
Ms. Leonard looks absolutely stunning (as does the entire company) in exquisite costumes by Arianne Phillips — 15 in total for the leading lady throughout the two-and-a-half-hour opera. Ms. Phillips was inspired by the cover art by period jazz albums and their fractured, primary colors — a perspective that weaves its way into Mr. Muhly’s musical narrative. The mezzo-soprano’s performance delivers glimpses of vulnerability, but the cerebral nature of the role leaves her with little room to emotionally soar. Throughout the production, Shadow Marnies (four women in radiant hues) haunt her thoughts and actions. Though their re-appearing procession adds visual impact to her conflicted inner monologue, the straight tone vocal delivery underwhelms their potential emotional resonance.
Rather than writing sweeping arias, Mr. Muhly bestows what he calls “links” upon Marnie, or “momentary windows into her train of thought.” These fragmented pieces become more lyrical as the opera meets its climactic conclusion. The composer also pairs musical instruments with each of the major roles as a further means of defining each of their journeys. The average listener might not consciously pick up such details, but combined with the score’s fluttering piccolo passages, the compartmentalized world that Marnie lives in rings true.
What’s more evident in Mr. Mayer’s staging is the exploration of the broader societal impact of a woman in a man’s world. From the opera’s first moments, we see Marnie amid a swath of secretaries in subordinate roles in an accounting firm. She repels sexual advances from both Rutland and his brother at various points and finds herself so distraught that she attempts suicide.
Rutland, apologetic but ultimately unable to recognize the impact of his assault, compares carnal desires to that of an animal, reflecting that we should have our “feet in the mud where we belong.” He encourages her to see an analyst (James Courtney), promising her a horse. This bizarre sub-plot and Marnie’s longtime equine affection feels implausible, given her modest upbringing, but at the same time emphasizes how men have attempted to control her throughout her life.
Choreographer Lynne Page (Broadway’s American Psycho and the 2010 revival of La Cage aux Folles as well as the upcoming feature film Judy starring Renée Zellweger) breathes freshness into otherwise processional staging with an ensemble of male dancers that crackle with unexpected extensions and jagged contortions that inform Marnie’s relationship to the foreboding world around her.
“Nobody knows who anybody really is,” says Marnie in a cryptic truth that may also apply to the talented composer, whose Two Boys offered a look inside the underbelly of Internet chat rooms when it premiered at The Met in 2013. He is on the brink of self-discovery, but much like his title character in this work, there is a disconnect keeping us at bay. Let us in, Mr. Muhly.
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November 3, 8 p.m.
November 7, 7:30 p.m.
November 10, 1 p.m.
Matthew Wexler is the Broadway Blog’s editor and chief critic. Read more of his work at wexlerwrites.com.