Marnie - All Style, Little Substance

Marnie and her dopplegangers, photo @ Ken Howard
I have an admission to make -- I've been horrible about attending new, contemporary operas. I did have tickets to Written on Skin a few years ago but vacation plans got in the way. But in general I just have not kept up with the contemporary opera scene.

Part of this is pure laziness -- given the choice between, say, Verdi/Wagner/Puccini and Thomas Ades, it's easy to just go with the tried-and-true. But part of it is also my strong conviction that musical theater is the art form that has the highest quality of new staged, sung dramas. Not every new musical is worthy but Fun Home, The Book of Mormon, Waitress, Dear Evan Hansen, The Great Comet, Hamilton are just some of the outstanding sung dramas that have graced the stage in the last 10 years.

Nevertheless tonight I decided to go to Nico Muhly's Marnie, partly because reactions to the opera have been so varied. I know people who absolutely loved it and those who thought it was trash. Tippi Hedren attended the premiere and claimed to love it. Nevertheless it has people talking. It has buzz. And from production stills, it has great costumes.

Davies and Leonard, photo @ Ken Howard
So what did I think? Marnie feels like two works. One is a very intriguing orchestral tone poem. Nico Muhly's orchestrations are far and away the best part of the opera. The orchestration creates a dark, sinister world -- he makes usually angelic instruments like the harp and celesta sound perverse and tortured. Alfred Hitchcock would have approved.

Muhly's orchestrations however are hampered by an astoundingly prosaic libretto by Nicholas Wright as well as Muhly's awkward vocal writing. Wright's libretto attempts to cover too much. A subplot of machinations within the Rutland family business is just a distraction. Not a MacGuffin. A distraction. He also just doesn't know how to write poetic lyrics. An understanding of the English language hampered my enjoyment of the work as certain lines just did not need to be sung. Here are a few nuggets:

Mark: "Halycon Printing is a family firm. I am the managing director." Also: "Someone's been buying the shares. They must be planning a hostile takeover." And then this gem: "Have you not noticed how I linger at your desk. How I call you into my office on the smallest pretext."

Marnie's mother: "Blond is for tarts and sluts."

Mark: "Slap me as hard as you like."
Marnie: "If I let you will you ring for a taxi?"

Mrs. Rutland (Mark's mother): "I think Tony would make a better fist of the job than you." Also: "I'm the one who has been buying the shares! I have a minority holding."

Marnie: "What does he think I am? A tart? A slab? A good-time girl? The office bike?"

Marnie and Mark, unhappy newlyweds, photo @ Ken Howard
Muhly's vocal writing unfortunately cannot lift the libretto to a higher plane. In the program he wrote that instead of arias he's written "links" -- short transitional moments when Marnie reveals her innermost thoughts. I listened for those "links" but for the love of god couldn't really differentiate one from the other.

For an opera that has big roles for a lyric mezzo (Isabel Leonard in the marathon title role), contralto (Denyce Graves as Marnie's mother), baritone (Christopher Maltman as Mark, Marnie's captor/rapist/husband), countertenor (Iestyn Davies as Terry, Mark's oily, facially scarred brother), tenor (Anthony Dean Griffey as Mr. Strutt, Marnie's Javert-like pursuer of justice), and an extensive chorus, Muhly's vocal writing has very little in the way of variety. It's better to go into Marnie expecting a sung tone-poem than an opera.

Here is an example: Marnie's aria "I see Forio" is supposed to be her big moment. The compulsive liar/stealer and personality cipher finally shows some tenderness when she sings about her beloved horse. This is actually a time-honored operatic tradition: a character shows her inner life by expressing his or her love for an outwardly insignificant object. But listen to this aria. Do you hear anything really memorable? Does this aria tug at your heartstrings? When you compare this to arias like Colline's "Vecchia zimarra" or Manon's "Adieu, notre petite table" does "I see Forio" have the same impact?

Emotional climaxes repeatedly go for very little musically because the vocal line is too similar from situation to situation. For instance at the end of Act One Mark attempts to rape Marnie. Marnie runs into the bathroom and slits her wrists. We know she's slit her wrists only because we see a shadow of Marnie cutting her wrists and an operatic panel turning bright red. In the second act Marnie sings "The hint of a cut, a trace of a scar, the wounds have faded. But the pain is there. Wounds never heal." Should be a big moment right? Muhly's vocal writing can't make you feel Marnie's pain. The finale of the opera (won't give it away) also goes for way less than it should as Muhly's clipped, constrained vocal writing simply can't take the viewers to a higher emotional plane.

This isn't to say that Marnie isn't worth seeing. For one, Michael Mayer's production is wonderful -- it's sleek, stylish and stylized. One of his best conceits is having four Marnie dopplegangers trail Marnie. They represent both her ever-shifting identities AND her unchangeable core. Julian Crouch's design are obviously inspired by film noir and the similar-looking rooms that are created by the ever-shifting panels suggest how Marnie is always in the same place, even when she's running from town to town, job to job, money-safe to money-safe. Arianne Phillips' costume designs really evoke the 1960's era.

Isabel Leonard in the title role is also worth seeing. She looks exactly like a Hitchcock heroine -- tall, icy, aloof. She throws herself fearlessly into the role, pushing her slender but warm mezzo and creating some sense of Marnie's fear and tortured soul. Her face is expressive and gives the character more of a soul than is in the opera's DNA. Denyce Graces is almost as good in the brief role of Marnie's mother. Her deep resonant contralto sounds like a sheet of ice which makes the eventual reveal of her all the more chilling. Longtime mezzo Jane Bunnell also does good work as Marnie's mother's maid Lucy.

Leonard and Maltman, photo @ Ken Howard
The Rutland family casting was not as inspired. Hitchcock repeatedly cast his leading men against type: Cary Grant became cold and sinister in Notorious, Jame Stewart creepy and tortured in Vertigo, the boyishly handsome Anthont Perkins was disarmingly sweet as Norman Bates. In the movie Marnie Mark is played by leading man Sean Connery. Christopher Maltman as Mark has a nappy, menacing baritone. His acting doesn't go beyond the stock villainous baritone gestures. I also hate to comment on these things but part of the reason Hitchcock liked to cast Hollywood leading men in complex, villainous roles was that they created a tension and dichotomy -- the character could be sexy, charismatic, and also totally disgusting and awful at the same time. Maltman looks like a schlub. All too easy to understand why Marnie doesn't want to touch him. It's a shame because Mark actually has the best music of the opera. His act two monologue comparing Marnie to a "wounded deer" is one of the few moments Muhly's vocal writing takes flight.

Iestyn Davies has a nice, slender countertenor voice but his character is so poorly written that it was hard for him to make much of the role. Why is he even given so much stage time? Janis Kelly as Mrs. Rutland was another character given too much stage time with little to no emotional payout. I did enjoy Anthony Dean Griffey as Mr. Strutt. He was a jolly, genial-looking man whose appearance belied his ruthless determination.

The orchestra was superb. It's hard to believe this is Robert Spano's debut at the Met. He conducted the Muhly's dense, thorny score with a taut sense of drama and tension. As I said, when I wanted to know what was happening onstage, I often listened to the orchestra rather than the vocals. The chorus was also magnificent. They actually have a huge role and Muhly's writing for the chorus is more inspired than his writing for individual voices. For instances in the Fox Hunt scene the chorus does little more than recount what is happening, but it sounds exciting, and for once I was listening more to the vocals than the orchestra.

Overall Marnie is an interesting work and I'm glad I saw it, although I don't know how much lasting power it will have. But at least no one can say I didn't give contemporary opera a chance anymore!

Last Tuesday I was at Carnegie Hall for Elina Garanca's recital. I've read some very negative reviews of the recital in some parts and think that those reviews are unfair. She was criticized for using a music stand, something I've seen many artists do during recitals. Yes Garanca did have a music stand but she rarely used it. I saw her glance at it a few times in Ravel's Shéhérazade and that was it. I think a larger issue is that two of the song cycles she chose (Wagner's Wiesendock Lieder and Ravel's Shéhérazade) benefit from being sung with an orchestra. The accompaniment is too dense and rich for a single piano to suffice. Nevertheless Wiesdendock Lieder suits her voice and I'd love to hear her sing it with an orchestra.

But I thought overall Garanca sounded gorgeous as always, and her program had enough variety to keep the viewer's interest.  The three encores she sang were worth the price of admission. The first was a gentle Latvian ballad called "Close Your Eyes and Smile," and then she sang her two major calling-cards: Carmen's "Habanera" and Dalila's "Mon coeur." In the context of a recital she played with the music and rhythm more and as a result her Habanera had more sexiness than I've ever heard her sing in any staged rendition, and "Mon coeur" was breathtakingly beautiful. She can sing the phone book and I'd still pay money to hear her.


  1. Thanks for your thorough review of Nico Muhly's Marnie, which certainly got me thinking about how fabulous the film by Hitchcock is and how out of this world Tippie Hendron was in it...and how difficult much of modern opera is for me as well. Dr. Atomic nearly killed me, I swear, I nearly died from sitting through that hideous bomb (no pun intended). I did, however, love The Exterminating Angel last year. It was extremely well acted, and even had musical value, meaning and great production values. But I wouldn't want to see it again for a very long time. Once was enough for at least a few decades. Is it too crude to add that I wasn't paying for my seat? To what degree does that enter it? I think I'm able to be objective. Anyway, prior to that, the Met's production of Philip Glass's Satygraha in 2007 was a religious experience for me. I can't imagine any other director repeating it with a different interpretation, that how fixated I got on it...Anyway, thank you for covering Marnie. I'm glad that at least it's slick looking and stylish, visually. She deserves that. Now I'll go rent the movie! All the best--

    1. Janet I like a lot of Philip Glass music and his operas. I like Akhenaten and supposedly the Met is doing that next year. It was a difficult opera but I also thought Death of Klinghoffer was worth seeing. I didn't see Exterminating Angel last year (forgot why).

      It's weird, I like contemporary pop music (I'm not one of those who thought music died with the Beatles), I like a lot of contemporary ballet, I go to new musicals and plays, new movies. It's just contemporary opera where I hit a roadblock.


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