Metropolitan Opera 2018-19 Review: Marnie

Isabel Leonard & Michael Mayer Shine in Frustrating Opera by Nico Muhly & Nicholas Wright

By David Salazar

Friday, Oct. 19, 2018 was a big night for the Metropolitan Opera.

A few years back, the company commissioned an opera by Nico Muhly with a libretto by Nicholas Wright based on Winston Graham’s “Marnie.” The work premiered in 2017 in London and has now finally made its way to the Metropolitan Opera. The Met was packed in anticipation of the work and on many levels, it was a major success.

A Tale of Two Acts

The libretto by Nicholas Wright is a tale of two acts. The first Act is tight, propulsive, and suspenseful. The action breezes by, the information is presented in a orderly manner, and there is a strong sense of direction. The decision to give Marnie expository monologues or “links” as Muhly calls them, can be a frustrating example of telling instead of showing, but given this story’s need for quick scene changes (it is far more cinematic in this regard), we can understand the choice. The decision to end Act one with Marnie’s fate hanging in the balance is a stroke of dramatic genius and the build to this point is quite compelling.

Also of potent interest throughout this first Act is the theme of men’s power over women. This opera is perfect for the #MeToo movement, with so many moments in the work playing precisely with today’s social milieu. Marnie’s revulsion at Strutt touching her in the first scene is later developed further by Terry trying to force himself onto her after a poker match. This hits its first climax at the end of the first Act when Mark tries to rape her.

But like the suicide attempt, the attempted rape gets mentioned once and is then altogether brushed away from the story and we are then expected to see a burgeoning empathy between the two main characters.

Male dominance remains a vital theme but in the second half, it gets lost as the story tries to develop other themes and newer plot threads. The result is ultimately hit or miss with the emerging plot threads the story tries to balance.

The development of the relationship between Mark and Marnie, despite the rape attempt and the fact that he forced her into marriage against her will, is a solidly handled example of Stockholm Syndrome. This dovetails nicely with the narrative development of Marnie’s sense of being increasingly trapped by her world. This is exemplified in the hunt sequence, a symbolic exploration of her losing grip on her reality and increasing powerlessness. The only power she exemplifies in this scene is to kill that which he loves most, which links to her own sense of guilt over the murder of her brother. Ultimately this only damages her further.

Inversely, her past with her mother and dead brother comes to the fore in a brilliant scene of psychoanalysis, disappears, and then reappears with a surprise twist that feels forced rather than earned. In fact, that scene, while essential to Marnie’s development, feels like an anti-climax because the thread had been abandoned a while ago and there was no sense that it needed further development.

Another subplot that really feels a bit underwhelming (and frankly unnecessary) is Mark and Terry’s rivarly and their business issues. We care about Marnie and her relationship to Mark; her relationship to Terry is really inconsequential and it never really feels like he might be a veritable threat to her outside of their first scene together. As for the business troubles, we are constantly told about them, but then Mark suddenly has no financial problems when it comes to paying off Strutt. Maybe if he actually had financially troubles there would be more tension and a greater sense of pressure placed on Marnie when her past starts to impose itself negatively on her present, but that’s not even the point of the story. I don’t think the audience would care much if Mark’s company wasn’t mentioned at all and the story would not lose much either. It might be a theme suited to a novel, but not necessary for an opera.

This “sloppiness” in the second act certainly fits in with the larger concept of Marnie’s psychological state growing more and more unsteady as she feels more trapped, which is definitely a nice contrast to the sense of control and pacing in Act one that correlates with Marnie’s own sense of poise. But it doesn’t always feel as immersive and there are moments where one might ask oneself where this is all going.

Two Musical Stories

Musically, the work follows a similar pattern but inversely. The music doesn’t always feel like an active participant in the drama in the first Act. You know it’s there, but somehow you don’t really feel it for large chunks. The vocal lines don’t seem to build emotionally, leaving this sense of frustration. For example, when the chorus exclaims that Strutt has been robbed, every word seems to be explored with the same dynamic and pitch; there is no ascension in either, giving the moment little sense of excitement. Sure, as an audience member, you know what has happened and what they will say, but emotionally the chorus must have some intense experience of it. With no real crescendo or build in either volume or pitch, the moment falls flat.

Marnie’s mini-monologues, or “links” as Muhly calls them, also follow in this vein, all of them sounding the same from a musical standpoint. Her emotions shift and the drama is transitioning and building before us, but her emotional state or the way she describes those events never seems to.

Overall, one got the sense that the music was there because this is an opera and by default the music HAS to be there. Of course, it had an impact on the proceedings, albeit subliminally, but on the whole it didn’t really cast much of an emotional impact. That isn’t to say that there weren’t some moments of brilliance in the first Act. The choice to pair Marnie’s tortured and broken mother with a solo viola created a sense of loneliness and desolation after the orchestral sea that had come before. We really understood the broken state of Marnie’s mother.

The climax of the first Act was also brilliantly executed as it gave us a sense of Mark’s predatory nature, the orchestra rising and growing with his vocal line, giving a sense of aggression and struggle. Here Muhly seemed more in touch with the intensity and dynamic between the two main characters.

It was during this second half that we got to really feel a greater sense of variety of color. Mark’s monologue early on as they prepare for a dinner is colored with delicate winds and strings, softening him to us.

The psychoanalysis scene is, bar none, the best moment in the entire opera, the orchestra plumbing the main character’s psychological depths, first violently, then delicately, ending in a duet between mother and daughter that foreshadows their connection through shared guilt. It’s a show-stopping moment and the theatrical coup that the work had been searching for previously. Conductor Robert Spano, in his Met debut, was at his best in this particular section (though to be fair he was excellent the entire night in maintaining a sense of musical composure and unity).

Marnie’s vocal line seems to find greater lyricism in this act and there is a general sense of excitement when the entire group goes for a hunt.

But it is also here where there is a mix of frustration over the limitations of the storytelling.

While it is undeniably impossible to stage Forio’s demise literally, it is an opportunity for Muhly to truly immerse us in the moment and make us feel the tension build. He does that, to an extent, but just before the music and scene reach the climax and it all comes crashing down, the music halts and the characters TELL us what happened, destroying the emotional tension that was building. This is an instant where one wonders why Muhly doesn’t trust the ability of showing us and having us feel the moment through his music, rather than having to resort to the crutch of the text explaining the action. The characters could still react to it (as they often do in opera), but the audience is ultimately robbed of an opportunity to feel the moment with the characters.

The end of the opera is also a winner, with Marnie’s proclamations of freedom giving truly lyrical flight; the music finally soars in a way that it never could throughout the night.

The Perfect Director

However, these elements while inconsistent, are brought together quite powerfully by Michael Mayer’s brilliant direction. His previous work at the Met amounted to one production – the confusing Las Vegas “Rigoletto.” He is due for a lot of other major projects at the Met, such as “Aida” and “La Traviata,” so this was an essential litmus test to see whether he had more to offer.

He certainly did.

As the opera commences, we see images of Marnie projected across large screens; each one features a different version of Marnie, which emphasizes her fractured personality and different identities. These visuals return at junctures of the story, playing up the motif of Marnie’s fractured being.

The scenes change rapidly from one to the next, giving the work a sense of cinematic pacing. The space may be split at times to facilitate this kind of scene change, also brilliant in its execution. This is best exemplified when Marnie visits her mother on one side of the stage; the lighting dims after this encounter and we are shown the aftermath of the robbery in Strutt’s offices on the other side of the stage. It’s economic, effective, and clearly in tune with the necessities of the story being told.

But Mayer delves deeper that just tight staging. His economical approach to the overall arc, allows for greater freedom in exploring symbolism.

Throughout the production, Marnie is pursued by two different groups of people. The first of these are her other personalities, almost like ghosts that linger and won’t go away. They are a part of her, even if she doesn’t want them around.

The other is a group of men that constantly watch Marnie. The male gaze is at the core of the themes of this work, with Marnie seemingly always subjected to the power of men in every context of her life. When she is trapped by Mark, he becomes the owner of her identity and how she is seen by others. Characters note that Mark is the one purchasing Marnie’s attire, suggesting that it is he who is dressing her up now as he sees fit. Marnie has lost control of her identity and is now a construct of the male gaze.

So it is no surprise to see this group of men come out and follow her throughout. Their first appearance is precisely when she robs Strutt’s office and the suggestion is that they each resemble her past crimes, which will always follow her. The motif of the men following Marnie is furthered in the hunt scene where they are literally the ones in pursuit, emphasizing not only that Marnie’s past is putting her on the brink. It further reflects the idea of men holding control over women.

Arianne Phillips’ wardrobe is perfect and spotless. Where most characters kind of blend into the world around them with shades of grey, Marnie always stands out with a variety of vibrant colors that make it impossible to look away. Of course, Isabel Leonard has a lot to do with how effective the wardrobe looks (she wears them perfectly), but the conceptual design is spot-on.

They Make It Happen

None of this matters without a cast to set the stage on fire and no one missed a beat in this regard.

As Marnie’s shadows, Deanna Breiwick, Dísella Lárusdóttir, Rebecca Ringle Kamarei, and Peabody Southwell made a strong impact every time they were on the stage. Their singing tended toward more straight tone, but it generated an eerie atmosphere around the heroine.

Anthony Dean Griffey’s Mr. Strutt was a gruff, obnoxious fellow, the tenor blasting sound throughout to drive home the characterization. He delivered it to perfection.

Janis Kelly also made a strong impression as the elder Mrs. Rutland, her singing had a pointedness that cut through powerfully. We really got a sense of her status as a controlling matriarch and when Muhly demanded that she rise to the higher end of her soprano, she did so with puissance.

The same could be said with Denyce Graves as Marnie’s mother. There was bite and aggression in her singing, her descent into the lower range giving a sense of ugliness that suited the murkier nature of this character. She was contrasted by a more gentle vocal performance from Jane Bunnell as Lucy, who helps out Marnie’s mother. Child singer Gabriel Gurevich won himself quite the ovation at the end of the show as he held his own with the star-studded cast in his brief exchanges.

A Story of Contrasting Rutlands

Iestyn Davies returned to the Met for yet another modern opera after last year’s success in “The Exterminating Angel.” Muhly must be commended here for his choice of using a countertenor for the role of Terry Rutland. This FACH choice provides great contrast with that of the baritonal Mark, but in ways we might not expect. We might see Mark as a stronger figure as hinted at the stronger voice type, but it is actually the higher-pitched Terry who is more active and enterprising, as his mother puts it. He is the one who has the strength to turn Marnie in. Where Mark’s actions are often limited, Terry sees a bigger picture and acts on it. Muhly’s style often tends toward the baroque in some of his writing, which also makes a countertenor an obvious choice.

Davies puts on a scene-stealing performance, his very presence generating tension on stage with his lecherous look at Marnie. He sang with great poise that reflected Terry’s more powerful figure within the story. There is no doubt that he struck his biggest impact during the Poker scene as he tried to force himself on Marnie, prying and prying, his singing growing more agitated and aggressive. The way he grabbed her was visceral and painful to watch and the eternal oddity of the countertenor against a full symphonic orchestra only added to the discord and dissonance of the scene.

While Christoper Maltman’s baritone flooded the theater with sound, we slowly saw his Mark grow weaker and weaker over the course of the night. Our first impression of him is that of strength and might as he strolled into Strutt’s. There was always a sense of confidence and poise throughout the first act and we even saw a hint of gentleness in his first scene alone with Marnie. But when he captures her, Maltman’s voice grew sturdier and his physicality firmer. In the final scene between them, he was pure violence, his sound blasting through the theater as he approached her like a predator after his prey. Suddenly, he went from a seemingly nice guy to a monster.

But then the second Act shifted the perspective a bit and Maltman sang with a gentler sound and his own interactions with Marnie were far more relaxed. As he offered to bring Florio, there was brightness in his timbre. The character grows weaker from here and his only real act of strength or courage is his embarrassing fight with his brother at a dinner party. He gets injured in the hunt, winds up in the hospital, and walks onstage with a hobble in the final scene. His only action here is to beg Marnie to be with him when she gets out of jail. He no longer has any control. Maltman’s voice was nearly a whisper here, the vigor of his singing earlier in the opera a distant shadow. It was a fascinating transformation and a rich characterization.

The ‘It’ Girl

But Isabel Leonard was the star of the night. She’s had her share of major successes at the Met, but this one tops them all. She owned the stage when she was on it; and she was on it almost the entire time.

She WAS Marnie.

She was a bit hunched over in the opening scene as she assumed one of her personas, but the moment that she was alone to make the theft, her entire posture shifted to that of an elegant, firm woman in control. Leonard’s visage was always full of intense expression and just looking at her, you could understand almost everything going on emotionally.

This was best exemplified in how she recoiled from Strutt shaking her hand to how she fought for composure when a stranger at a pub approached her and suggesting that he knew her. Her physicality was a major reason why the sexual harassment scenes with both Rutlands worked so well. She didn’t cower from them, but stood up and put up a fight. We could feel the rage and indignation. In her scene with her mother, her slouched posture hinted at the power dynamic in the relationship. As she sang of Forio, we saw stillness and composure, her look toward the distance giving a sense of momentary bliss that was rare; we got a similar feeling of relief at the end of the opera as she sang that she was free, Leonard’s voice gloriously blooming.

The mezzo’s voice was rock solid the entire night as she navigated what must have been excruciatingly challenging rhythmic passages as written by Muhly. Her diction was spotless, every word given ample clarity. By the end of the night, when she was finally allowed to show off her vocal beauty, the Argentine-American star displayed glorious legato, her sound rich and expansive.

The chorus also put in a strong shift, the ensemble’s music often calling back to similar ensembles by John Adams in his operas. The Met Orchestra, as always, sounded excellent under Spano’s conducting. For whatever reason, the ensemble seems to find another gear when taking on modern works with every piece of the puzzle firmly in its place. There is a sense of polish and sheen that isn’t always present in more standard repertory staples. Everyone is on a different level here in “Marnie” and the opera correspondingly grows because of it.

Ultimately, “Marnie” isn’t going to be for everyone and perhaps the audience that might appreciate its music most could be musicologists (though I am definitely intrigued to give it another listen). Regardless, Isabel Leonard and the rest of the cast are spellbinding and Michael Mayer’s direction makes this a must-see.


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