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Thread: Marnie at the Metropolitan Opera (on PBS)

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    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Marnie at the Metropolitan Opera (on PBS)

    Marnie, opera in two acts, sung in English, presented on TV with English subtitles
    Music by Nico Muhly
    Libretto by Nicholas Wright, based on the 1961 novel of the same name by Winston Graham
    Premiered at the English National Opera on November 18, 2017
    Commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera
    A co-production of the Metropolitan Opera and the English National Opera

    Recorded live in October 2018 from the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City
    Nationwide broadcast on PBS on February 1, 2019; runtime 2 hours and 30 minutes (opera, approximately 2 hours and 10 minutes), part of the Great Performances at the Met series - this recording has also been shown in cinemas (Met Live in HD). The backstage interviews are presented after the opera (approximately 15 minutes - with a very interesting part about Isabel's 15 costume changes).

    The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra conducted by Robert Spano
    The Metropolitan Opera Chorus, chorus master Donald Palumbo

    Michael Mayer – Producer and Stage Director
    Julian Crouch and 59 Productions – Set and Projection Designers
    Arianne Phillips – Costume Designer
    Kevin Adams – Lighting Designer
    Lynne Page – Choreographer
    Paul Cremo - Dramaturg
    Habib Azar - Telecast Director


    Principal Roles

    Opera Lively interviewee Isabel Leonard – Marnie
    Opera Lively interviewee Christopher Maltman – Mark Rutland

    Supporting and some of the comprimario roles

    Janis Kelly – Mrs. Rutland
    Denyce Graves – Marnie’s Mother
    Iestyn Davies – Terry Rutland
    Anthony Dean Griffey - Mr. Strutt
    Little Boy - Gabriel Gurevich
    Shadow Marnies - Deanna Breiwick, Disella Lárusdóttir, Rebecca Ringle Kamarei, and Peabody Southwell


    The libretto for this contemporary opera is based on the novel, rather than on Hitchcock's famous adaptation of the story for the cinema. The action, set to the year 1959, takes place in England, where the alluring Marnie pursues a life of crime and dishonesty by assuming new identities after stealing from her employers. After pulling off another heist and adapting a new look successfully, she moves on to a new job at Halcyon Printing where her new boss is widower Mark Rutland. His brother Terry who has a large birthmark on his face, also works there and harasses Marnie. She makes an attempt to steal from the company’s safe but is caught red-handed by Mark, who blackmails her into marrying him by threatening to turn her in to the police. Now forced into a loveless marriage, Marnie must face the traumas of her childhood inflicted on her by her emotionally abusive mother, and past indiscretions to free herself from a vicious cycle of deception, especially regarding a heinous act she was led to believe she had committed as a child.


    Dear readers, some of you know that I am a huge fan of contemporary opera. I'm always eager to see a new one, and hopeful that the piece will continue to advance the art form and sway a larger fraction of the public into supporting the efforts of our live composers. I am disappointed when the work doesn't live up to my expectations, and this unfortunately is the case, here.

    This score, the fruit of an important commission from the Met, is rather bland and unimpressive. We are very far from operas that can be rightfully called contemporary masterpieces, such as Written on Skin, Luci mie traditrici, and L'Amour de Loin, among others. While some of the orchestration is interesting at times, the vocal writing is rather lacking in imagination, to the point that its monotony has a negative impact on the theatrical enjoyment that can be had from watching Marnie. I am left with the impression that if this piece only contained spoken dialogue with orchestral accompaniment instead of sung lines, we wouldn't be missing a whole lot (I'm just talking about the opera now, not the singing in this particular performance, which was excellent - see below), given that the vocal writing is even less compelling than the instrumental parts, which are not that great to start with. There are exceptions, like the scene when Marnie sings about her horse Forio, or the moment in Act II when she is seeing a psychoanalyst (one of the best scenes and musical parts with appropriately fractured music) but they are not enough to save this opera. Incidentally, the parts for the chorus are way better than the ones for solo voices. Muhly does use some leitmotifs and some intelligent devices. For example, Marnie's lines are underscored by the oboe; Mark is represented by the trombone, and Terry by the muted trumpet (which is called twining, when an instrument is paired with a character). Still, the end result is, let us say, not highly inspired.

    Those who have read the novel, which is not my case, have complained of the libretto as well, stating that a number of interesting psychological aspects of the original text (such as Marnie's ambiguous feelings for Mark, and other aspects of her family relationships) were not recovered by Nicholas Wright, resulting in a somewhat missed opportunity. Nico Muhly does justify it in the backstage interview by saying that the original plot was too complicated for an opera (I'm not sure about that... the art form does have its share of numerous very convoluted plots that are still successful).

    Critics tend to give a bigger pass to the composer than the librettist. Me, not having benefited from a familiarity with the novel but only with Hitchcock's 1964 film version (which has a screenplay that is even more simplified, story-wise, than this libretto), I mostly blame the composer for the generally underwhelming feel.

    I haven't listened to his other two operas, Two Boys and Dark Sisters, but reviews are not enthusiastic, despite Nico being considered a rather good composer who is very prolific in other forms. It may be the case that he will still develop more as an opera composer. We all know that opera is a tricky medium, and late blooming is the rule rather than the exception, even for someone like Wagner whose first two operas are definitely not his greatest (although I actually quite like them both), therefore these so-so initial results shouldn't discourage people from continuing to follow Nico Muhly's operatic career. I'd just say, put some more spice and energy into it, Nico! Fly higher! Nico is a disciple of Philip Glass with whom he worked for eight years, and given Glass' sublime vocal writing for pieces like Satyagraha and Akhnaten, I guess I was expecting more from Muhly.

    It is interesting to see that Nico Muhly is the youngest composer who ever had a work commissioned by the Met, and he has had not one, but two (a first at the Met in more than half a century!). One wonders about the criteria used for this. I can think of some contemporary American operas that are far better than Marnie, like Mark Adamo's Little Women that was commissioned by Houston Grand Opera, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Silent Night, commissioned from Kevin Puts by Minnesota Opera.

    Philip Glass' gorgeous Waiting for the Barbarians had to go all the way to Erfutz, Germany, to find a commission, and after stepping by Amsterdam, ended up in Austin, Texas, for its American premiere (the Met did commission his The Voyager, though). All three masterpieces by John Adams, Doctor Atomic, Nixon in China, and The Death of Klinghoffer, were not commissioned by the Met, but respectively by San Francisco Opera, Houston Grand Opera, and a consortium of six companies and festivals, three of them foreign, and one being the neighboring Brooklyn Academy of Music. Jake Heggie's great operas Dead Man Walking and Moby Dick were composed thanks to San Francisco Opera and Dallas Opera, respectively. Santa Fe Opera has been active with commissions, too (for example and among others, Cold Mountain by Jennifer Higdon, and Oscar by Theodore Morrison, both in co-commission with Opera Philadelphia).

    So, what exactly explains the fact that our most important, largest, and richest company, the Metropolitan Opera, gets two from Nico Muhly but usually won't get involved with creating new opera from the most celebrated American composers? Go figure! Well, at least the Met commissioned The Ghosts of Versailles from John Corigliano, but that was in 1980! Not to forget Barber's Anthony and Cleopatra in... 1966! I'm sure there were more that I'm forgetting to quote. OK, yes. There were Mourning Becomes Electra (Marvin David Levy), The Great Gatsby (John Harbison), An American Tragedy (Tobias Picker), and The First Emperor (Tan Dun). Barber, Corigliano, Picker, and Glass do qualify as major American composers, but still, it's far and in-between, and mostly a long time ago.

    A more recent Met co-commission did include the excellent The Tempest, followed by The Exterminating Angel, but these were by a British composer, Thomas Adès. Unlike the Met that mostly walked away from putting on the main stage most of the little results yielded by a commissioning program started in 2006 - Two Boys being I believe the only exception (and there was the cancellation of a new opera by Argentinian composer Golijov, although mostly by the latter's fault due to a writer's block) - the Washington National Opera does have an active New American Opera project.

    Fortunately, under Yannick Nézet-Séguin, this may change for the Met. There are talks that he is trying to commission works from Jake Heggie, Kevin Puts, Missy Mazzoli (the Met's first commission from a woman), and Mason Bates, among other American composers.

    Anyway, I'm not complaining that the Met commissioned works from Muhly. The more contemporary opera, the better. It's just puzzling that they got two from him, and one or none from a bunch of very good people, and ignored completely other great American composers who went elsewhere in the United States for their commissions, or abroad.

    Enough ranting. Back to Marnie.

    Paradoxically, this production is not bad at all - it is actually quite good. The stage director, the set and production designers, and the two principal singers make the best of this less-than-stellar musical material, creating a final product that does have many strengths.

    First of all, the visual team is the same one that created the spectacular Satyagraha production at the Met, and while this current effort is not as incredibly stunning as that one, certainly it holds its own, with very beautiful sets, projections, and colors. The idea of the "shadow Marnies" is very clever (four women dressed in different bright colors who surround the title character in various scenes, symbolizing Marnie's multiple identities - and their wordless vocalizations do add harmonic depth to Marnie's lines). Choreography and blocking are a thing of beauty, especially in the very well done horse race scene. Costumes and lighting are great. The physical production gets a full A++ grade. The video direction is good and doesn't get in the way, with a balanced number of close-ups and panoramic views that are well-chosen. Sound capture and engineering are perfect.

    Second, Isabel Leonard is magnificent, and carries the show on her shoulders. What is not to like about Isabel? Her looks are gorgeous, she has a divine voice that is perfectly modulated and well-controlled, with deep colors and versatile range, and she commands very sophisticated acting skills. Our maximum score of A++ for both acting and singing seems almost insufficient to grade this veritable tour de force.

    Christopher Maltman is in great vocal shape, but his acting is not as intense as Isabel's. While she portrays perfectly Marnie's various states of mind (such as repulsion, despair, and disgust), Christopher doesn't infuse into his character enough of the frustration and torture of being married to such a beautiful woman who doesn't allow him to touch her physically, appearing almost indifferent in many of the scenes, unlike some of his passionate Don Giovanni performances. A+ for his singing, B+ for his acting.

    While I love countertenors, Iestyn Davies is not among my favorite ones. It is a pity that a formidable countertenor, Anthony Roth Costanzo, here is the host of the broadcast instead of the singer manning the Terry Rutland part, although Iestyn doesn't sink the ship and still deserves an A grade, but I'll make it an A-. Denyce Graves and Janis Kelly do a very decent job with their small roles, and the same can be said of Anthony Dean Griffey (all deserve at least A). The boy soprano is good. The Met chorus is competent as usual (A+). Overall, singing is definitely a plus in this show, and when we add Isabel's acting to it, there is enough justification to recommend this performance.

    It is hard to pass judgment on the conductor, since I've never heard this piece with anybody else, but I somehow doubt that the blandness is the fault of maestro Spano and the phenomenal Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. You can do just as much when the score is weak (B-; it just doesn't take off; it is never thrilling, despite some beautiful chorus parts and decent orchestral stretches), and if anything, the conductor and the orchestra appeared to have done as well as they could.

    Another downside of this score is that it is a bit too long for the material, losing pace at times. Nico Muhly could use some editing and some inspiration for example from the very intense and compact 90 minutes of George Benjamin's Written on Skin. With about 40 additional minutes and some longueurs, ideally either the composer would trim the score a little, or the librettist would add to the psychological conflicts found in the source material. In the history of opera, revisions do happen, and this opera could benefit from one. It needs more intensity.

    Anyway, the plot is certainly interesting, Isabel is phenomenal, the visuals are beautiful, so, by all means, do watch a rerun if you catch it on your local PBS station (they will probably also have it on the PBS website, for a while). I just wish the composer had done a better job.

    So, in summary, we have a very superior product in terms of visuals and singing, with a production/ performance average close to A++, but the piece itself doesn't go much higher than B-, so overall we get to a recommended grade of A.


    Production pictures, fair promotional use, credits Metropolitan Opera / Ken Howard, and Sara Krulwich / The New York Times - these do not entirely convey all the visual impact of this production, which is considerable, since they do not show the beautiful panels and projections from a distance.

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    Last edited by Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva); February 13th, 2019 at 11:43 PM.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Here is what Isabel had to say about Marnie, in her most recent interview with us (full interview [here]):

    OL - Now, let us put Pélleas et Mélisande aside, and talk about other aspects of your career. I am a huge fan of contemporary opera, and I am sad that I did not have an opportunity to see your Marnie here at the Met. I never listened to this opera; I am intrigued by the acting possibilities of incarnating a character with multiple identities. So, please, walk me through it, and tell me about the piece and your role, and Nico Muhly’s music.

    IL – There is a misconception about Marnie. She didn’t have a split personality disorder at all. She changed her physical appearance and a little bit her voice and posture, if you read the book. She put on different identities, but she herself did not have multiple identities, if that makes sense.

    OL – Yes, I chose the words multiple identities, without the disorder part. I did not say split personality disorder. I am a psychiatrist, by the way. So that is why I made this choice of words.

    IL – Yes, OK. I just wanted to make sure, because when people talk about multiple identities, for me it does not clarify exactly what her deal is. If at any point people think she has any version of a split personality, then the story goes out the window.

    I thought she was really fascinating. When I read the book, I knew that I would be playing her, so I was automatically more empathetic to what she was doing and going through; it is a slightly different and super interesting perspective when you know that the character’s voice will be your voice: you start building an immediate connection. She, just like Mélisande, came from a very difficult, maybe not physically abusive but certainly emotionally abusive childhood and young adulthood, and that informed everything about her, later on. Her choices to steal were all about her desire to get approval from her mother. As you know, getting approval from your parents is a life-long therapy session. All of it, for her, really stemmed from the desire to have her mother say “I accept you and I forgive you,” for something that later on we understand that Marnie never did, but she was led by her mother to believe that she had killed her baby brother. Not only did she believe that she did this horrible thing, she has been asking for forgiveness her whole life, which she never gets, until the end, when she is told what happened and gets a little bit of clarity.

    She was very fascinating because there was this level of strength, and the only time her shield would be cracked was around Mark, because she had feelings for him. Marnie spent most of her life shying away from any intimate relationship or emotional connection whatsoever. It was how she protected herself, because of her damaged life. Every time she was around Mark – and you read it in the book very, very clearly – she would think “Why do I feel this way? What am I feeling?” and couldn’t even bring herself to say it.

    Isabel Leonard as Marnie and Christopher Maltman as Mark Rutland - Photo Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

    The book was written from her own voice and perspective, and we can see that she would change the subject, and take a left turn out of her suppressed feelings towards him, which is always so interesting and fascinating to me. Being attached or having any connection did not work with what she was trying to do: stealing, so that she would get the money and take it home, to get that acceptance from her mother. To have a character that was doing these crazy things and be able to empathize with all of her choices at such a deep level, was fascinating.

    OL – What about the music?

    IL – The music had a completely different feel than Debussy’s, although in similarity, there was also a sort of liquid feeling in it. There were some very jagged sounds in the score of Marnie that very much depicted how she was feeling. The music is just very different. Nico Muhly had little motifs for different characters, and he used instruments in a different way. Also, as a sing, vocally I was all over the map. I interacted with Nico while he was writing it, and I said “I love doing leaps, I love octave leaps.” So he wrote a lot of them for me! [laughs]

    OL – [laughs] So you were like, “Me and my big mouth!”

    IL – Yes! You get what you wish! I know, but it turned out to be, vocally, just elastic, in a very strong way. It is hard to be elastic and strong at the same time. You can be, but you have to finesse it carefully, and I think that is exactly who Marnie is, because she has to meander through these different situations she puts herself in. In some point or another, she breaks, finally.

    OL – I’m sad that I didn’t have an opportunity to see it. I have to see it.

    IL – It will be on PBS on February 1st at 9 PM EST.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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