20 Nov 2017

Nico Muhly's Marnie at ENO

Winston Graham’s 1961 novel Marnie was bold for its time. Its themes of sexual repression, psychological suspense and criminality set within the dark social fabric of contemporary Britain are but outlier themes of the anti-heroine’s own narrative of deceit, guilt, multiple identities and blackmail.

It’s little wonder Alfred Hitchcock was attracted to the book for his 1964 film - though he changed much. Hitchcock gave his film a more optimistic ending, and changed the setting to the United States, but in doing so stunned his viewers with an almost 1920s Germanic Expressionist take on the story. There is a sense of Gothic horror to Hitchcock’s film - not one vindicated by the novel - but in part it helps explain the Jungian and Freudian despair and angst of the anti-heroine. At times, the film seems almost to be filtered through a veil of blood-curdling red or flashes of lightening. This is the apotheosis of anti-Romanticism, anti-love, where rape and brutal sexual mores become almost normalised.

That Nico Muhly had so much thematic material to draw on for his opera is a given, though it’s questionable he’s really used the material well. He has chosen, with his librettist Nicholas Wright, to return largely to Graham’s novel and its deep class divisions, and this certainly works for the ending where Marnie’s redemption is to be found in her acceptance of her fate as she faces arrest, and probable imprisonment, for her thefts. Likewise, we are back in a Britain of circa 1959 with its gloomy, Lowryesque landscapes that seem as suffocating and repressed as most of the sexual manners of the characters the composer and his librettist have drawn so unflatteringly. It is rare in an opera to find oneself feeling a lack of empathy for any of the characters in it - but Muhly and Wright have succeeded in doing just that. From Marnie herself, to the domineering Mrs Rutland, who owes much to Britten’s Mrs Sedley, the twisted Mark and his equally rapacious brother these are people who lie to themselves, each other and us. These are characters trying to find their own complex, emotional landscapes in a brutalist, post-war urban industrial world that has almost no disconnect from their behaviour towards each other.

Marnie Cast .jpg Cast of Marnie. Photo Credit: Richard Hubert Smith..

Whilst there is much that is beautiful in Muhly’s opera - the Hunting Scene is a real operatic and musical tour de force but it is almost the only one - too much of it gravitates towards past operatic influences rather than having anything new to say. If Muhly’s musical language, minimalist though it can sometimes be, sounds distinctly his own, the use of the woodwind, with individual instruments mirroring characters on stage, feels like Debussy. The Britten of Peter Grimes hangs like a huge and obvious shadow, especially in the musically weaker first act - notably in the choruses. Janańćek’s The Makropoulos Case and Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtensk provide more subtle musical and dramatic influences. The scale of Muhly’s writing, too, tends towards a more chamber-sized orchestration and eschews much of the demi-Romanticised writing that Bernard Herrmann used for his Hitchcock score. In part this works because this isn’t a love story in any conventional sense - but neither is Muhly’s score haunting, or tense or psychologically deep. It’s rare for the music to act as a catalyst for drama in much of this opera. The upside to this is that voices aren’t drowned out by the scoring, though that is not to say clarity wasn’t an issue. At times it was.

Where Marnie is an unqualified triumph is in its direction and sets. Michael Mayer, Julian Crouch and 59 Productions have created a set that is clever, drives the narrative and entirely seduces the eye in one’s visual experience of this opera. It doesn’t necessarily replicate Hitchcock’s film, but it owes much to the influence of Hitchcock’s mastery of cinematography nevertheless. Certainly having a stage as large as that at the Coliseum, with its width and depth, allows for a genuinely widescreen presentation so the hunt, for example, with filmed galloping horses and on-stage percussion, with Marnie herself in the centre as the focus, was a moment of high drama in an opera that sometimes felt drawn out, especially in Act I. The cleverness wasn’t that the staging recalled the Hitchcock of his 1964 Marnie, it was that it threw up comparisons to his earlier film Psycho - especially Saul Bass’s opening title sequence with its sharp perpendicular lines, and the use of bars or panels to highlight the fragmented psychosis of Marnie herself. The use of four “Marnie Shadows”, dressed in different colour dresses to the central character herself, in a psychiatrist scene in Act II, are a further extension of this Jungian neurosis that try to take us deep inside the deeply fragmented mind of our anti-heroine: split-screens, split personalities.

Charlotte Beament Katie Stevenson Sasha Cooke Emma Kerr Katie Stevenson .jpg Charlotte Beament, Katie Stevenson, Sasha Cooke, Emma Kerr and Katie Stevenson. Photo Credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

Arguably, a British audience might have had some problem identifying the shadowy, blackened skyline as London - but a New York audience, when this production transfers to the Metropolitan Opera next year, will have less of a problem with its greyed-out skyscrapers and smoky exteriors. Whilst exteriors create some element of debate as to place, interiors are universal - an office is anodyne and functional wherever its geography. Just as the initial backdrop of London conveyed the image of Lowry, so did the choruses tightly packed together like a crowd in certain quarters of the stage for their scenes - and there was more than a hint towards the surrealism of Magritte in the troupe of nattily-dressed, male, trilby-hatted dancers. Just as in Magritte’s painting, the Son of Man, distended joints of an arm were articulated in rigid dance movements - and as in the painting the backdrop on the scenery was replicated by moving clouds.

ENO Marnie Daniel Okulitch Sasha Cooke (c) Richard Hubert Smith.jpg Sasha Cooke and Daniel Okulitch. Photo Credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

Casting for Marnie was largely first rate, though this is an opera that doesn’t rely on a huge ensemble cast - perhaps underscoring its minimalist credentials. The American mezzo, Sasha Cooke, sang the lead role with both insight into her character’s many psychological torments and her sexual neuroses. If there was a significant problem, it was that she sometimes seemed to allow herself to be swamped by the stage - but this could be a virtue in her vulnerability that was all too apparent. She was magnificent in the hunting scene where she seemed to become the vixen and held the centre of the stage superbly here - especially when there was so much else to catch the eye. A lesser singer - and actress - would have been quite overwhelmed by this scene. Daniel Okulitch as Mark had no such problems with his strong, clear voice and of all singers had the most crystal-clear diction - though the role is not an attractive one, especially as written in the novel. One did feel the sexually dark side of Mark had been significantly underplayed in this production - but that can hardly be blamed on the singer. The counter-tenor, James Laing, brought hefty contrast to the sheer beauty of his voice and the wonderfully predatory nature of his character, Terry. Lesley Garrett, as the overbearing Mrs Rutland, was sonically dominant - and gleeful in the transparency of her innate malevolence. The chorus were outstanding, and in an opera that is more cameo driven than usual this was a bonus. The ENO Orchestra, under their Music Director, Martyn Brabbins, played well.

Lesley Garrett Daniel Okulitch.jpg Lesley Garrett and Daniel Okulitch. Photo Credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

Marnie is, I think, a bit of a curate’s egg. On the one hand, it isn’t sufficiently gripping as either opera or theatre for it to find a place in the modern repertoire, or bear repeated listening. There are undeniable beauties in places - some of Muhly’s score is deft, even clever - but they go skin deep only. If you really want to experience the intensity of psychological opera Richard Strauss achieved the very pinnacle of this more than a century ago. It tries to delve deep into the mind of a scarred and flawed woman, and the people in her life, but barely scratches the surface. The thinness of the orchestration, the lack of great operatic moments, the inability to develop character are often fatal. On the other hand, there is no question that visually it is stunning to see - but this is only half the point of opera. Or, no point at all.

The performance on 1st December will be recorded and broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 9th December.

Marc Bridle

Nico Muhly: Marnie (libretto by Nicholas Wright)

Marnie - Sasha Cooke, Mark Rutland - Daniel Okulitch, Terry Rutland - James Laing, Mrs Rutland - Lesley Garrett, Marnie’s Mother - Kathleen Wilkinson, Lucy - Diana Montague, Mr Strutt - Alasdair Elliott; Martin Mayar (director), Martyn Brabbins (conductor), Julian Crouch and 59 Productions (set and projection designs), Arianne Phillips (costume), ENO Orchestra and Chorus.

English National Opera, London Coliseum; Saturday 18th November 2017.