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In Review > North America


The Metropolitan Opera

In Review Met Marnie hdl 119
James Courtney, Isabel Leonard, Denyce Graves and the “Shadow Marnies” at the Met
© Beatriz Schiller

THE METROPOLITAN OPERA offered the much-anticipated U.S. premiere of Nico Muhly’s Marnie in October. Nicholas Wright’s Marnie libretto is based on the eponymous 1961 novel by Winston Graham, which also inspired Alfred Hitchcock’s 1964 film. Marnie, a clever, rebellious thief whose specialty is stealing cash from her employers, stops her crime spree when she is caught by Mark Rutland, a partner in a small family firm that Marnie has robbed. Mark forces marriage—and then, brutally, himself—upon Marnie before maneuvering her into analysis in an effort to unlock her past. Graham’s book—which undoubtedly had a spike in sales from music critics within the past year—presents a compellingly canny, resourceful and chilly heroine whose sense of self-worth has been damaged in childhood.

I attended the first three performances of Marnie’s Met run (Oct. 19, 22 and 27), and each viewing only increased my admiration for Robert Spano’s taut conducting, Michael Mayer’s elegantly efficient production and Isabel Leonard’s serene authority in the title role. Mayer’s staging looked just as good from the Met’s dress circle as it did from the center orchestra: the set and projection designs by Julian Crouch and 59 Productions moved the story along with clarity and wit, abetted by Kevin Adams’s crisp, pellucid lighting. Although the setting of the opera was specified as “England, 1959,” Arianne Phillips’s smartly tailored costumes had the bold gloss of a Hollywood film wardrobe: Marnie’s chic persimmon “Balenciaga” at Mrs. Rutland’s party could have passed for a movie star’s gown by Jean Louis or Edith Head. Mayer’s exemplary work with the cast yielded telling details of character and behavior, nowhere more cleverly than in his quietly powerful staging of Act II’s scene of Marnie and Mark simultaneously dressing for a business dinner and negotiating a bargain that will change the nature of their relationship.

Leonard, an authentic beauty and an accomplished actress, dominated every scene—no easy task when playwright Wright’s prolix libretto stuffed the action with as many cameo roles as a Dickens miniseries—and slipped into each of Marnie’s chic ensembles with the élan of a professional model. Some of Marnie’s music lies too low for Leonard’s lyric mezzo-soprano, but when the vocal line allowed it—as in Marnie’s final moments—Leonard shone impressively.

Spano paced the small army of supporting characters perfectly, from company veteran James Courtney, prodigiously funny as Marnie’s analyst, to Met debutant Will Liverman, who deftly limned the duplicitous Malcolm Fleet. Denyce Graves boomed out the imprecations of Marnie’s Mother with apt hauteur, Janis Kelly brought a touch of English frost to the unforgiving Mrs. Rutland and Jane Bunnell dug for gold and found it in the tiny part of Lucy. The quartet of dopplegängers meant to suggest Marnie’s multiple identities was neatly sung by Deanna Breiwick, Dísella Lárusdóttir, Rebecca Ringle Kamarei and Peabody Southwell, although it appeared at times that Marnie was being stalked by the Lennon Sisters. Iestyn Davies sang and acted stylishly as the oily Terry Rutland, Marnie’s brother-in-law, and the enigmatic Mark Rutland, Marnie’s husband, was given a measure of sympathy by Christopher Maltman’s incisive, well-articulated singing.

Muhly’s talent, imagination and intelligence are manifest in every measure of Marnie; it is an abiding pleasure to hear Muhly’s alluring, persuasive writing for the chorus and orchestra, which is the best of his generation. But Wright’s talky, arch adaptation cruelly simplifies a complex heroine; overweighted with exposition in Act I, his libretto makes Marnie seem like play with background music. None of the characters sings with urgency: all of the piece’s important emotional information is in the orchestral music. For all its virtues—and despite a first-rate production—Marnie never achieved dramaturgical lift-off. —F. Paul Driscoll

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