Marnie, English novelist Winston Graham’s dark, psychologically probing 1961 novel, has long been a subject of fascination for readers as well as fans of Alfred Hitchcock’s liberal 1964 adaptation starring Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery. Now it makes its U.S. debut in opera form at the Met, beginning October 19.
With a compelling heroine, a startling storyline, and the vast emotional range of the characters, the tale packs a wallop both on the page and onscreen. The film was long a secret favorite of director Michael Mayer, so much so that in 2013, he suggested it as an operatic subject, initially to composer Nico Muhly and then to librettist Nicholas Wright. Fate was on his side: Muhly happened to have been reading Graham’s brooding Poldark novels (famously adapted for television by the BBC), and Wright himself, coincidentally, was immersed in Marnie.
The story offered all manner of dramatic challenges: a complex character whose horrific childhood trauma drives her serial thievery and deception, perpetual reinvention, and desperate avoidance of intimacy; sexual predation; and Marnie’s troubled relationship with her grasping, disparaging mother, for starters. Not to mention marriage-by-blackmail, a foxhunt gone terribly wrong, penetrating psychoanalysis sessions, and attempted rape and suicide.
In short, it was the kind of story rife with “emotionally intense ambiguity” that appealed to Muhly. The youngest composer ever to be commissioned by the Met, he had found previous operatic inspiration in the shadowy swirl of Internet chat rooms (Two Boys, his prior Met commission, performed by the company in 2013) and the confining world of a polygamous Utah cult (Dark Sisters, a chamber opera that premiered in 2011).
The cast for this U.S.–premiere production of Muhly’s latest opera features mezzo- soprano Isabel Leonard in the title role opposite baritone Christopher Maltman (her eventual husband, Mark Rutland), joined by countertenor Iestyn Davies (playboy Terry Rutland), soprano Janis Kelly (Mrs. Rutland), and mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves (Marnie’s mother). Robert Spano makes his Met debut on the podium.
Themes such as the threat of discovery and of being trapped or captured pervade the piece, which unfolds in England in 1959. In Graham’s novel, Marnie shares her first-person story with the reader. While the opera offers a wider perspective, the work still presents a peculiar challenge: “a woman discovering her own complicated emotional landscape while lying about it to those around her, and indeed, to herself,” explains Muhly. The work’s creators sought to convey, musically and dramatically, the chasm between what Marnie says and what she does, what she understands about herself and about the forces driving her. Through internal monologues he calls “Links,” Wright gives the audience a glimpse into Marnie’s private thoughts and feelings. “You get this duality of someone who is completely present, and yet is untouchable,” says Mayer.
For Leonard, Marnie affords the rare and rewarding opportunity to inhabit someone entirely new to opera audiences. “It’s always interesting and exciting to step into a new role and to essentially create that character from scratch,” she says. “It’s a constantly evolving process, and there’s something very challenging about that but also liberating. You have to forge your own path.”
Leonard, whose repertoire extends from Mozart to Jennifer Higdon, has a busy Met season, starring as two other heroines in addition to Graham’s troubled figure: the courageous Blanche de la Force (Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites) and the fragile Mélisande (Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande), whom Muhly likens to Marnie. “I think the challenge is finding a way for the audience to sympathize with Marnie and not write her off,” says Leonard. “She’s very complicated— and not truly by choice, but by circumstance. It will be interesting to hear how the audience feels about her toward the end of the opera. I think the more complicated the feeling, the better.”
In his first opera based on fictional characters, Muhly sought to convey their more hidden intentions with his layered, complex score. “Each of the principal characters is ‘twinned’ with an orchestral instrument,” he writes. “With very few exceptions, nobody actually tells the truth to one another in the show, and the twin instruments can help reinforce the chamber music–like tugging between various deceits and agendas.” Muhly’s choral writing, a rich and enduring preoccupation for the composer, also provides a shimmering, textured character to the music. Whether portraying office workers or passersby, the choristers are “free to be a weather system in flux,” Muhly says. “Floating narrators about the nature of guilt,” they serve as a “psycho- logically oppressive force” (evoking Britten’s chorus in Peter Grimes).
And in an ingenious stroke, the storytelling is abetted by four “Shadow Marnies” (referred to playfully by the creative team as the Marnettes), an all-female barbershop quartet that sings in an early- music style with little vibrato. Conveying a sense of fracture, they represent “not just her anxieties but the cruel release of her coping mechanisms”—never more so than in a pivotal Act II scene on the analyst’s couch, when she relives her childhood distress. Donned in striking, bright-hued period attire—the work of costume designer Arianne Phillips—the Marnettes also help evoke the era, combining with a backdrop of evocative designs by Julian Crouch and 59 Productions, with lighting by Kevin Adams, to bring the two-act opera’s 19 scenes to life. “There’s a kind of abstract, jazzy, punchy feel to the graphic qualities that continually shift,” says Mayer.
The creative team embraced this abstract approach in staging the ill-fated foxhunt in Act II; Wright chose to set it from the point of view of the hunted, as Marnie despair- ingly identifies with the cornered fox. The hugely challenging scene utilizes not only the principals and chorus, but a group of male dancers—silent figures who encroach upon their prey. The tempo of Muhly’s engrossing, percussive music increases as the pace of the hunt, and Marnie’s panic, intensifies.
Oddly, the tragic events of the hunt lead to a kind of liberation for Marnie. During the hunt, her beloved horse Forio (the only creature she has been able to love) is critically injured and has to be shot. She then finds that her glimmer of feeling for Mark, who has also been injured, renders her incapable of fulfilling her customary plan of theft and escape. The audience has witnessed this subtle shift in her feelings for him even before she has. As the Met’s dramaturg, Paul Cremo, explains: “As the opera progresses, the intervals Marnie sings become tighter. By the time she gets to the end, she’s singing more tonally and lyrically, reflecting her dawning realization of her emotions … She begins to realize that she must reject the false selves she’s created and embrace whatever fragmentary authentic self she can access if she is to live any kind of real, complete life.”
In the end, after Marnie is arrested and Mark pledges that he will be there for her, she is incapable of responding in kind. Marnie remains ever-elusive, leaving him (and us) to wonder. To Muhly, it’s the ambiguity of the tale that is most haunting: “Do we ever know, can we ever settle on, who is a hero and who is a villain?”