Sunday, November 11, 2018
Douglas Messerli | "Tumbling Through Their Own Sentences" (on Nico Muhly's opera Marnie)
tumbling through their own sentences
by Douglas Messerli
Nicholas Wright (libretto), Nico Muhly (composer), Michael Mayer (stage director), Habib Azar (director) Marnie / 2018 [The Metropolitan Opera HD-live broadcast]
I should begin this essay by admitting that I never much liked Alfred Hitchcock’s 1964 film Marnie, mostly because of its hack psychological story, as retooled from Winston Graham’s 1961 novel by screenwriter Jay Presson Allen. I don't particularly admire her film-writing and cinematic doctoring of works such as The Prime of Miss Brodie, Travels with My Aunt, Forty Carats, Cabaret, Funny Lady, and other box-office successes. What she basically does is take interesting novels and plays and “re-fix” them in ways that exaggerate their central characters—Liza Minelli’s Sally Bowles in Cabaret being a perfect example (Allen complained that director-choreographer Bob Fosse didn’t much like the Bowles figure, and if you properly read the Isherwood book, why should you?) Although she was known as someone who might re-write and improve works, I think she often turned them into glossier versions of darker figures in the original writings; Marnie, in particular, under Hitchcock’s handling, is a film about a tortured psychotic whose problems were simply explained away with a childhood incident. Apparently, seeing her prostitute mother being attacked by a sailor, the young Marnie took up a fireplace poker and clubbed the intruder to death, the sudden remembrance of which frees of her compulsions and permits her to remain with her husband, Mark Rutland as her protector instead of her facing jail time for her numerous acts of robbery in her past.
I attended the new Metropolitan opera live-HD production yesterday, accordingly, with some consternation and a great many doubts. Although Muhly and his librettist Nicholas Wright immediately embraced the idea of turning Graham’s novel into an opera, I still feel it’s a highly confused and second-rate work. Even if we discover the heart of Marnie’s problems are quite different from the movie, it still doesn’t quite explain her hatred of all men and her insistence upon robbing them and turning much of her evil gain over to her detestable mother—a bad woman through and through as even her stage incarnation Denyce Graves admitted in an intermission interview. But, at least, in refocusing on the novel, Muhly and Wright, along with director Michael Mayer, have given us a much stronger and denser work, which takes the celebrity luster off both the Tipi Hedren and Sean Connery characters, exposing their far darker natures.
Fortunately, Isabel Leonard (as Marnie) and Christopher Maltman (as Mark) are remarkable singers who take their cues from oboe and trombone intrusions, all colored with Muhly’s lyrical explorations that occasionally remind us of Bernard Herrmann’s scores for Vertigo and other Hitchcock scores, including the original Marnie.
That is not to say that Muhly’s score is unoriginal. In fact, along with Wright’s libretto, Mulhy pulls the work away from the great film director’s version, taking its figures deeper into the shadows of human behavior by not only repeating the heroine’s seemingly pointless behavior, but revealing the ugly manipulation of Rutland, as, after discovering Marnie’s role as a serial thief, forces her into a marriage and, finally in frustration, tries to rape her. The end of Act I ends violently with her attempt to slit her wrists in rejection of his advancements.
The introduction of Mark’s rather sleazy brother, Terry (played by countertenor Iestyn Davies), moreover, takes us into yet another dimension. This Cain-marked man—a red patch crosses his face from birth—also allies him to the outsider if physically nearly-perfect-looking Marnie. As Davies recognized about his character, although he is another detestable figure in this tale of anti-heroes, he is the truthteller, determined to make Marnie realize who she truly is.
But, obviously—given the fact that Muhly and Wright have literally split Marnie’s character into four other madrigal singers, all dressed and with hair coifed in a similar manner, simply wearing coats of a different color in order to represent a few of her various identities—it is nearly impossible for her to discover who she is. If Terry sees her as simply a liar, she perceives herself as merely a survivor, someone who is attempting to stay alive by challenging all the dominant men (and women) in her world who tell her, time and again, that she is not only worthless, but an evil being.
The most horrific of these is her own mother who has convinced her daughter that she has jealously suffocated her baby brother soon after his birth—an absolutely terrifying possibility completely exorcised from Allen’s screenplay. But Mark’s own mother (Janis Kelly) is not much of a lesser monster for him, deciding that despite her distaste for his appearance and morals, Terry is perhaps more ruthless and, accordingly, better able to run her son’s printing operation. If Kelly, as she suggested in an intermission interview, saw her character as only being “strong” instead of evil, the book, in which Mark’s mother is secretly buying up stocks in the company in order to oust Mark, makes it apparent that she too is a destructive force. In short, no one in this opera version is a truly good person. Each wants something from one another.
Strutt, the first we see among the many Marnie has robbed, wants only payment, presumably endless, for her having broken the illusion that she was an extension of his ego. Others in her past creep out of the woodwork, represented by the group of black-suited men who dance always around Marnie and her four symbolic selves (with wonderful choreography by Lynne Page). Is it any wonder that Marnie hates men?
Relocated from Virginia and Maryland back into its original location of the English countryside, it makes total sense for Marnie to be a horse woman who prefers the beast to men. Her horse, Florio, she luminously sings, is the only being she truly loves. But even here she is betrayed as, when she is disgusted by the hounds who are attempting to rout out a vixen from her den—surely a cornered beast with whom she can identify—she turns Florio away, sending him on a wild race away from the hunt, which ends in his disastrous stumble over a wall, Mark’s own fall into a hospital bed, and Marnie being forced to take out a gun and kill the only thing she ever loved.
She is now finally ready to continue her criminal career, stealing Mark’s keys and breaking into his safe. Yet something has changed; she can no longer put the easy money she discovers into her purse. Perhaps the very fact that he has stayed by her side, even knowing the truth, has altered her perception of men. He may have brutally used her to capture her as a bride, yet he has remained a kind of gentleman of sorts.
The discovery of the truth, after her mother’s death, that it was Marnie’s mother who herself strangled her newborn, transforms the work into a kind of study of how the central character seeks morality in a world with little of it to offer, thrilled by her inner freedom even at the very moment that handcuffs our placed around her wrists. Unlike the film, Marnie is not “saved” or even protected by Mark’s chauvinistic actions, but must now make her own decisions of how to salvage her life, becoming perhaps the only character who is truly free from the ugly controls imposed them. If in her robberies she might have imagined she controlled the men for whom she worked, she now perceives that instead they determined her—and in that recognition, she becomes a kind of feminist figure able now to go her own way, wherever that may lead her.
Marnie may not be a great opera, but it is certainly a fascinating one, where the composer and librettist, often, hardly allow their characters to sing out full sentences living in a world that won’t entirely allow them to speak out any true emotion or truth. Tumbling through the mostly exuberant score, the singers come at last to a kind of peace with their own inabilities to express the fullness of their lives. And Muhly’s opera transcends its own somewhat pedestrian story.
Los Angeles, November 11, 2018
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (November 2018).