BWW Review: Muhly's MARNIE, in Mayer's Cinematic Production, Is a 'Riddle, Wrapped in a Mystery, Inside an Enigma'

BWW Review: Muhly's MARNIE, in Mayer's Cinematic Production, Is a 'Riddle, Wrapped in a Mystery, Inside an Enigma'
Isabel Leonard (seated) and the Shadow Marnies.
Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera

Nico Muhly's MARNIE, aided and abetted by Nicholas Wright's libretto, dramaturg Paul Cremo and the sweeping production of Michael Mayer--which had its US premiere Friday night at the Met--is that fabled "riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma." Nothing is quite what it seems or results in easy answers--for the characters or the audience.

For me, the questions started from the work's beginning: early into the first act, set in the novel's '50s England. A figure comes on stage, Mr. Strutt, owner of the business where we see the title character commit her first theft (onstage, at least). As portrayed by tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, he could be taken for Alfred Hitchcock, director of the notorious film version of the Winston Graham novel that is also the basis of the opera (and who always showed up in his films).

That movie was as much about the director's (unrequited) obsession with Tippi Hedren, the actress who created the role, as it was about the character developed by Graham. Was that resemblance intentional? (Director Mayer admits to a fascination with the film, while not quite revealing a fetish for it.)

BWW Review: Muhly's MARNIE, in Mayer's Cinematic Production, Is a 'Riddle, Wrapped in a Mystery, Inside an Enigma'
Isabel Leonard and Christopher Maltman.
Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera

I don't know the answer--though it appeared to be just one question mark in a work that is in many ways fascinating and, on the whole, I believe delivered the goods. Mezzo Isabel Leonard is striking in the title role while baritone Christopher Maltman is forceful as Mark Rutland.

Mayer's cinematic production, designed by Julian Crouch and 59 Productions with Kevin Adams's lighting, Arianne Phillips' gorgeous costumes and Lynn Page's effective choreography, flowed seamlessly from start to finish. (I wished, though, that some of the "crowd" scenes--i.e., the office, the party at Mark's mother's house--were less explicit and left more to the imagination.)

The most brilliant of the work's inventions was the creation of the vervierfachengangen--my name for 'doppelgangers times two'--four Shadow Marnies. (They were portrayed, exceedingly effectively, by Deanna Breiwick, Disella Larusdottir, Rebecca Ringle Kamarei and Peabody Southwell.)

This Greek chorus of lookalikes, each in a different colored version of the same outfit, conveying the splintering of her personality, lent a fascination to the proceedings like no other element. (Except, that is, for the dancing "men in black" or, rather, gray, who hound but never actually interact with her, choreographed by Page.) Their appearance in the suicide scene and the psychoanalyst's office were not simply effective but critical elements.

Then there's Muhly's music, which refuses easy categorization, running the gamut from the manic and dissonant to the pulsating, rhythmic sing-song, from the religious to the melodic, the eerie and the biting.

Yet, for me, he adopted a style that took too long for Act I to get going. The scenes seemed crammed with plot--in a very literal way--and not enough music that didn't fade in the background. Yes, there is some interesting choral writing and what the composer calls "links," snippets of monologues meant to illuminate the inner workings of the troubled woman, but i didn't think it was enough.

Despite her getting away with thefts in the offices where she works, shifting her identity (always with names initialed MH, like the EM of Janacek's MAKROPOULOS CASE), Marnie doesn't have enough to separate her musically from the other characters. In Act I, while the clipped music might express her avoidance and forced composure, it is not terribly different for the others', lending a little sameness to the sound.

But Act II--after an entr'acte that seems to bow to Hitchcock's frequent musical collaborator Bernard Herrmann--turns more linear, in the aftermath of the final, traumatic scene in Act I where she fends off her husband's attempt to assault her sexually (a matter that the creators seem to find too troubling to dwell on).

It is here that the music starts to bloom, even as we see the shadow of a suicide attempt and then her tending to the wounds, surrounded by her Shadow Marnies. Does the musical change harken back to her earlier warnings about being strong---to survive--and never be a victim? Perhaps. Yet she also reminded herself that wounds never heal.

The story is filled with secrets, some explained, some not. For example, we find out the source of Marnie's childhood trauma is no fault of her own, as she believed, but of her mother. But in the foxhunting scene, at the Rutland estate, where Marnie's beloved horse breaks a leg, she puts him down herself, but leaves the gun lying about, which is taken and hidden by her brother-in-law, for no reason ever explained. When Mark is injured trying to rescue Marnie from the horse's fall and lands in a hospital, when his mother visits he alludes to some trauma from his own past that is not explained.

Leonard grew in power and presence as the opera propelled its way forward, though her luscious voice didn't have its best opportunities until Act II, when the results were stunning. Maltman, with his sonorous baritone, did well as Mark Rutland, but he was written as neither romantic lead nor the face of evil, making for a somewhat confusing character. (While Maltman might have benefitted from some of the malevolence he showed as Don Alfonso in last year's COSI FAN TUTTE, that might have made him too repulsive.)

Countertenor Iestyn Davies gave a first-rate performance as Mark's brother, Terry, though I couldn't help thinking the character could have been excised without hurting the thrust of the story, even if he did show the most insights into Marnie's psychoses. Mezzo Denyce Graves excelled in a nasty turn as Marnie's sharp-tongued mother, overbearing and somewhat over the top, while soprano Janis Kelly gave a stylish reading of Mrs. Rutland. Boy soprano Gabriel Gurevich had an audience-pleasing turn as the messenger and tool of Marnie's mother.

The Met Orchestra, under Robert Spano, was up to all the challenges of style that Muhly threw at them, as was the Met chorus, under Donald Palumbo, who were critical in several scenes.

The evening's coup de theatre, however, didn't have anything to do with the music or the urgency of the production. It was the presence of the "real" Marnie: Tippi Hedren, taking a bow with the cast.

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Further performances of MARNIE will take place on Oct. 22, Oct.27 and Oct. 31; Nov. 3, Nov. 7 and the matinee on Nov. 10, which will be transmitted worldwide as part of the Met's Live in HD series, now seen in more than 2200 movie theaters in more than 70 countries.

Running time is about 2 ½ hours with one intermission. Curtain times vary: See the complete schedule here.

Tickets begin at $25; for prices, more information, or to place an order, please call (212) 362-6000 or visit www.metopera.org. Special rates for groups of 10 or more are available by calling (212) 341-5410 or visiting www.metopera.org/groups.

Same-day $25 rush tickets for all performances are available on a first-come, first-served basis on the Met's website. Tickets go on sale for performances Monday-Friday at noon, matinees four hours before curtain, and Saturday evenings at 2pm. For more information on rush tickets, click here.

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From This Author Richard Sasanow

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