The Met is giving Nico Muhly’s Marnie a stylish production that debuted at English National Opera last year, and Robert Spano makes his much-belated house debut.
In contrast to the love-triangles that populate many opera librettos and theatrical scripts, the principal characters form a sort of ‘hate-triangle’, its apex being a tour de force for Isabel Leonard as Marnie, who steals from her employers and then moves to a different town, each time assuming a new identity. The other two are brothers at a family publisher – Mark Rutland who manages the firm and hires Marnie, and Terry. All three are psychologically scarred. Guilt arising from a childhood trauma impels Marnie to a life of deceit and leaves her unable to engage in sexual intimacy. Mark, a weak manager, is recently widowed, Terry suffers from feelings of inferiority traceable to a facial birthmark, and the brothers are dominated by their mother and have suppressed their bitter rivalry dating from childhood. Marnie rejects Terry’s advances, and even after she is blackmailed into marrying Mark, who catches her stealing from his safe, she refuses to have sex with him, attempting suicide when he tries to rape her while on their honeymoon cruise. At Mark’s urging, Marnie sees a psychoanalyst and begins to understand her guilty feelings, learning the truth only in the final scene.
Michael Mayer’s staging and the set and projection designs present the drama in almost cinematic fashion, seamlessly jumping from scene to scene without interrupting the action and sliding tall panels and props to reconfigure the stage. The latter task is accomplished by a half-dozen men in gray suits who are also spectators, dancers or representations of Marnie’s thoughts. Arianne Phillips’s attractive costumes, including fifteen for Marnie, reflect the 1959 setting.
Muhly’s score is well-attuned to the libretto and also to the visual elements. He sets the chatter of office workers in minimalist style, is onomatopoeian in depicting lightning, thunder, galloping horses and hunting horns, and powerfully dramatic at moments of conflict. There are also some tender moments, including a lovely viola solo as Terry comforts Marnie after her beloved horse has been put down, the only being she has ever really loved.
Leonard is brilliant, ranging from sweet to jarring, both in her interactions with other characters and in a series of revelatory soliloquies. She is often accompanied by four “Shadow Marnies”, sometimes silent, at other times as a chorus with Marnie. The Shadows take turns on the analyst’s couch and react strongly as Marnie recalls her childhood trauma. Maltman and Davies are superb, and Janis Kelly is excellent as the domineering mother. There are other standouts, not least Denyce Graves and Anthony Dean Griffey.