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There’s something about Marnie. She’s terribly flawed, like every single character in the opera of the same name by Nico Muhly. But she is darkly fascinating. And the same can be said for Muhly’s intelligent, riveting, occasionally frustrating opera, which opened at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera last weekend under the direction of guest conductor Robert Spano, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s music director. 

Spano, now in his 18th year as music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, made his Metropolitan Opera debut with the American premiere of Marnie, a high-profile new opera by Nico Muhly, which was commissioned by the Met. Spano has announced plans to step down from the ASO in 2021. While he has never held an opera posting, his career has included high-profile opera engagements, including Wagner’s monumental Ring cycle, which he conducted at Seattle Opera in 2005 and again in 2009. 

In Atlanta, Spano has worked extensively with vocal music, including numerous concert and semi-staged operas and complex choral works, showcasing the renowned ASO Chorus. Equally important for Marnie is Spano’s facility for conducting new works, which have been a major focus of his career. Few conductors are more closely identified with modern works than Spano, whose tenure at the ASO has included the creation of the Atlanta School of Composers. John Adams is one of the composers he has championed and regularly conducts Adams’ operas and other vocal works. Not incidentally, Adams is a major influence on Muhly.  

Robert Spano

Spano will conduct all performances of Marnie including the final matinee, November 10, which will be transmitted to movie theaters internationally via the Met’s “Live in HD” program, beginning at 12:55 p.m. He clearly enjoys conducting opera, and it’s not unlikely that this will figure into his post-ASO career.

Marnie is part of a new emphasis on creating new works at the Met, a process that has evolved and accelerated in the five years since the company performed Muhly’s other Met commission, Two Boys. The opera is adapted from a 1961 Winston Graham novel, which was also the source for Alfred Hitchcock’s most extreme movie (also titled Marnie). Nicholas Wright’s libretto for the opera hews more closely to the novel than to the movie. Still, the far better known movie looms large over this project. Hitchcock’s Marnie, Tippi Hedren, even managed to show up and steal the show at the curtain call on opening night. Graham’s work has also enjoyed a revival due in part to the success of the Poldark television series, based on some of his novels. And the opera restores the darker atmosphere and ending of the novel.

Part of the fun of experiencing this opera — and it is fun — comes from revisiting the movie (available on Amazon Prime) as preparation. It is Hitchcock’s most operatic film. And, with a mise-en-scène featuring exaggerated colors, intentionally artificial backdrops and a swooping Bernard Herrmann score, together with an intense focus on sexual psychology, repression, lust and violence, all revolving around a femme fatale, it is also the “Hitch-iest.”  

Marnie is the story of a sexually repressed kleptomaniac (Marnie) who takes on multiple identities. Mark, her wealthy employer, blackmails her into marriage and tries to rape her on their honeymoon. He gives her a life of privilege, but she is deeply unhappy and has a sort of breakdown during a dramatic fox hunt. Ultimately she learns the truth about a nightmarish trauma from her childhood and, in a bit of pop psychology, breaks free from her demons just before being arrested for her crimes, leaving her future uncertain. 

The opera is written in two acts, each totally different from each other in both text and score. The libretto for the first act is fast-moving and full of suspense. But in the second act, things bog down with a series of distracting subplots including, for example, Mark’s disputes with his brother, Terry, over the family business. But this act also includes the strongest scenes in the opera, including Marnie’s visit to a psychoanalyst; the fox hunt, which functions as a mad scene; and the riveting final scenes. 

Wright’s libretto is frequently poetic, with lines like Marnie’s “I’ll be there for myself; that’s all I know for now.” But awkward clichés abound.  

Isabel Leonard and Iestyn Davies in Marnie at the Metropolitan Opera (Photo by Ken Howard)

Muhly’s score for the first act is built around a propulsive minimalism that often sounds like something from Philip Glass or John Adams, but with a spikier texture and a range of gripping sounds, including exotic percussion and woodwind sounds and edgy brass. The second act is much more lyrical and neo-romantic. And while the score in the first act often falls into repetitive patterns that go on too long and become tedious, the score in the last act featured more variety and color. 

Muhly is a master of choral writing, and in Marnie he makes extensive, imaginative use of the chorus, ranging from cacophonous office chatter to ordering drinks at a bar; from gossip reminiscent of Benjamin Britten to Anglican ecclesiastical sounds at the finale. A quartet of Marnie doppelgangers, ghosts of her previous identities, sing madrigal harmonies, adding another layer to the score. Each major character is shadowed by a particular instrument, a technique that is especially effective in the case of Marnie, paired with an oboe.

The significant flaws in Muhly’s score have to do with the writing for the singers, much of which is monotonous arioso that advances the story but is neither natural nor lyrical. This is partly because there are just too many words in Wright’s libretto. Muhly’s arias are expressive, but too often they are not the kind that show off the beauty of the voice. Still, the big scenes stand out partly because so much of the evening is bland.

This is especially true for Marnie, whose music is restrained for much of the evening. Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard gives a finely nuanced performance in the role. Baritone Christopher Maltman portrays Marnie’s husband with power, finesse and restraint. His role is problematic: he’s the cad who blackmailed Marnie into marriage and then assaulted her, but he tries mightily to protect her.

The production is elegant, efficient and cinematic. Spano’s conducting is a model of precision, perfectly balanced, nicely supportive of his singers, not all of whom have voices powerful enough to fill the cavernous Met. In 2009, Los Angeles Times critic Mark Swed wrote: “Spano’s baton here acted like a giant broom industriously sweeping away that clutter.” Swed was reviewing a performance of Rachmaninoff’s Third Symphony with the L.A. Philharmonic, but I thought about that observation while listening to Marnie. Spano’s great gift is to focus attention on the critical elements of a complex score, subtly bringing them forward, and here he confidently brought order to Muhly’s frequent torrents of sound. 

One reason Marnie works is simply that it’s a ripping good drama. You want to know what will happen next, so your attention never flags. There are stretches in the score that are banal, repetitive and even boring. But there is also brilliant, exciting music, especially for the orchestra and chorus. Muhly is a major talent. And here he has been blessed with an ideal cast, a brilliant production and Robert Spano’s baton. The opening night audience was enthusiastic, and rightly so.

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