Monday, 12 November 2018

Muhly - Marnie (New York, 2018)

Nico Muhly - Marnie

The Metropolitan Opera, New York - 2018

Robert Spano, Michael Mayer, Isabel Leonard, Christopher Maltman, Iestyn Davies, Denyse Graves, Janis Kelly, Marie Te Hapuku, Anthony Dean Griffey, Deanna Breiwick, Dísella Lárusdóttir, Rebecca Ringle Kamarei, Peabody Southwell, Gabriel Gurevich, Jane Bunnell, Stacey Tappan, Ian Koziara, Ashley Emerson, Will Liverman, James Courtney

The Met Live in HD - 10 November 2018

Hitchcock's 1964 film Marnie hasn't aged well, nor frankly has Hitchcock's once unassailable reputation over the last decade. A lot has changed with regards to how we view a woman's response to inappropriate advances from aggressive male bosses - particularly in the film world - but it has to be said that regardless of how he was behaving off-screen, Hitchcock was at least one of the few filmmakers willing and daring enough to explore aberrant psychology (including his own) in mainstream popular cinema. Nico Muhly's opera version, world premiered at the English National Opera earlier this year, could be seen as a timely work in that respect, but it's debatable that the source material allows it to probe any deeper or any more successfully than Hitchcock managed in 1964.

Ironically the difference between how the two works approach the subject of how Marnie's childhood trauma manifests itself in later life is where the weakness lies in both, so perhaps it's the source material of Winston Graham's novel is at fault here. Hitchcock, perhaps for his own prurient motives, dared at least to extend the psychological impact into Marnie's sexual relations with men, or rather her lack of them, rather reductively depicting it in terms of 'frigidity'. Muhly's opera perhaps wisely skates around the pseudo-science and psychoanalytical aspects and perhaps lets Marnie's actions speak for themselves without the overblown melodrama. He attempts rather to express the hidden side of Marnie's character and her inner struggles in the music, but it's not entirely successful there either.

In terms of laying out the drama, plotting and pacing, the opera version of Marnie is faultless. It develops and progresses wonderfully, in part due to Nicholas Wright's lean concise adaptation and Muhly's rhythmic musical flow, but director Michael Mayer - last seen at the Met in their visually stunning Las Vegas Rigoletto and the initiator who suggested the idea of Marnie to Muhly - also makes every scene and action count within Julian Crouch's wonderfully stylised production designs. Every effort is made not only to keep the drama moving along and engage the spectator through the visual and musical representation of the drama, but there is also an effort to extend that to the characterisation, finding ways to hint at deeper and darker impulses.

The main manifestations of Marnie's 'issues', which also works well for dramatic tension, are in her criminal behaviours and her changes of identity. Set in England in 1959 - Muhly and director Mayer retaining the period character of the source novel - Marnie (as office secretary Mary Holland) isn't long in making off with the contents of her employer Mr Strutt's office safe, soon after rejecting an awkward advance he makes towards her. She changes her appearance and name and applies for a post far away from Birmingham with a firm in Barnet in London, but is horrified to find that it is run by one of Strutt's clients, Mark Rutland.

Rutland however doesn't appear to remember or recognise her, but when she finds herself fighting off the advances of Terry. Rutland's brother and deputy at the company, Marnie decides it's time to help herself to the company safe and disappear again. She is caught however by Mark who has recognised her and known about the theft at Strutt's, but is in love with her and blackmails her into marrying him. The honeymoon consequently doesn't work out terribly well, there's an attempted rape (toned down here) and the situation leads Marnie to attempt suicide, an action that brings to the surface the truth about the family trauma that lies behind her criminal actions, her changes of identity and her inability to get close to anyone.

Michael Mayer's period stylisations appear initially to draw not so much on Hitchcock as the lushly colourful Technicolor romantic melodramas of Douglas Sirk (where arguably the film's subject matter might have fitted better) with some Saul Bass-like image projections to show Marnie in her various identities. There is some considerably effort however made to get beneath the surface glamour of the period and show the underside of Marnie's working class background, but also to show the various aspects of Marnie's identity beyond the changes of name and appearance. Four women accompany her on stage - singing roles - to reflect those different sides to Marnie, and a team of shady dancers in hats and long coats haunt and swirl around her.

The staging goes some way towards providing a more rounded and psychological portrait of Marnie and Nico Muhly also puts considerable effort into making that characterisation just as rich in musical terms. Muhly places solo instruments behind each of the voices to give them individual character and perhaps also hint at underlying psychology, but how successful this is can be difficult to determine or even audibly detect. (The sound mixing, I have to say though, didn't really give a good account of Robert Spano's conducting at the live cinema screening). Musically, Muhly's score is reminiscent of John Adams, but despite all the efforts in the solo and ensemble instrumentation, it never develops a character of its own for the purpose of the drama, accompanying rather that revealing other depths.

If the work is nonetheless successful in bringing Marnie to life, it certainly has something to do with the composer's writing for the voice. On the surface at least the voice types are carefully chosen; Marnie's mezzo-soprano, Mark's baritone, Terry's countertenor and Marnie mother's contralto all giving a particularly character that works with the music to alternately suggest surface strength and personality weakness. More than anything however it appeared that the real success lay in Isabel Leonard's superb performance. She looks stunning in Arianne Phillips's costume designs, maintaining an edge of cold detachment but one that you can clearly detect from her mannerisms and voice (not just her shadow-Marnies or the musical undercurrents) is hiding powerful emotional forces.

The singing in the other roles is also good, but determined to a large extent by how well the characters were written. It's difficult to sympathise with Mark Rutland's crude way of treating Marnie, but he's also a man of his time and he probably does love her in his own way, and despite the stiffness of character Christopher Maltman holds that balance well. Quite where this fits in with any #MeToo narrative is a connection probably best avoided, particularly considering the Met's own problems with sexual abuse scandals, but there were a few tentative attempts in the commentary to invoke it as relevant. Iestyn Davies was terrifically spiky as Terry Rutland, providing more menace than his brother despite having a lesser role, and Denyse Graves and Janis Kelly make a great impression as the domineering mothers despite the thinness of the characterisation.

Links: Metropolitan Opera