Nico Muhly is back at the Coliseum with the world premiere of a new opera, following 2011’s Two Boys. Based on Winston Graham’s novel – and dramatised by Hitchcock in the 1964 thriller starring Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery – Marnie tells a compelling story of deceit, duplicity and childhood trauma. It is set in 1950s England, to mostly outstanding music and stars a wonderful cast.
There is truth in Muhly’s assertion that Marnie “screams out for operatic treatment”; the original story is full of complex emotions, although most of them are hidden in the tortured mind of its lead. Childhood trauma has led Marnie down a path of lies, theft and identity crisis, justifying it as a quest to probe the limits of forgiveness that she never gave herself. This mix of what is visible and what is felt behind multiple façades is, at the same time, a persuasive idea for an opera and an impossible one. Librettist Nicholas Wright provides Muhly with an intriguing yet sometimes flat story that contains sections of truly beautiful music. However, it feels as if we have just scratched the surface of Marnie’s psyche. Most of it is obvious, and what is not is occasionally not enough.
Musically, Marnie is a mixed affair. Characters are paired with specific instruments to be associated with – Marnie with the oboe, for instance – while the orchestral overture and interludes are great at creating a threatening and duplicitous atmosphere. Undoubtedly, the chorus is given the opera’s finest writing, particularly in the funeral scene of Act Two. On stage, Marnie is joined by other shadow versions of herself who represent her different identities, singing in clean, close harmonies. Overall, the first half is energetic and compelling, building dramatic tension. However, the second half lacks the same energy and feels flat in places, as the action seems less thriller-like and more of a reflective piece. This mood carries on until the last few scenes in which the pace picks up for the thrilling finale. Michael Mayer – director of the recent production of Funny Girl at the Savoy – creates a space in which transitions are slick and fluid, creating different settings with sliding panels and atmospheric projections. This gives the production a filmic quality that is only lost in the fox hunt scene, anti-climactic in its stillness.
The driving force of this opera is Sasha Cooke’s Marnie, a departure from Tippi Hedren in that she is easier to empathise with. Her outstanding singing compensates for some scenes in which more drama would have been welcome, such as when she is being psychoanalysed. All in all, her performance is thrilling, and her relationship with Mark Rutland (Daniel Okulitch) is devastatingly believable. Okulitch rises to the challenge creating a charismatic persona, in spite of the terrible thing he does, while his brother Terry (James Laing), provides a more threatening yet seductive tone. Mark and Terry’s mother, Mrs Rutland (Lesley Garrett), is given few occasions to shine and provide some needed comic respite. Marnie’s mother (Kathleen Wilkinson), however, is written quite superficially, when she could have been a much more threatening – and perhaps evil – presence.
As a broken woman in denial of her own culpability, Marnie is an extremely difficult character to musicalise. Like a kaleidoscope, her multiple fake personalities hide a much darker truth, buried underneath layer upon layer of lies. She is also a woman navigating and fighting a male-dominated world that, like the suited actors who follow her on stage, tries to come to terms with herself against her will. Muhly builds a compelling opera that, for the most part, is effective in bringing this story to life. The brilliant chorus sections have a great number of performances – which of course includes that of the ENO Chorus, in absolute top form. Great conducting from Martyn Brabbins and an effective production largely makes up for some flat pacing and superficial writing.
Marnie is playing at the London Coliseum until December 3 2017.
Photo: Tristram Kenton