A Missed Chance for Female Empowerment in the Metropolitan Opera’s Marnie

At first, the opera seemed relevant to today’s re-evaluation of gender norms. But the narrative does not bear out this interpretation.

A scene from Nico Muhly’s Marnie (photo by Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Last year, the Metropolitan Opera hosted the North American premiere of The Exterminating Angel, Thomas Adès and Tom Cairns’s adaptation of the 1962 Luis Buñuel film. At the time, I wrote that although contemporary operas are always a welcome programming choice, Adès and Carnes’s libretto hewed too closely to the film. While the adaptation was musically and dramaturgically strong, it was almost a scene-for-scene transcription — a little ironic, given that the original film is about society’s inability to break with familiar patterns of behavior.

With music by Nico Muhly and libretto by Nicholas Wright, the Met’s North American premiere of Marnie, based on the Winston Graham novel (which Alfred Hitchcock made into a film of the same name), takes a more adventurous direction by adding elements suited specifically to the stage. Most notably, Isabel Leonard in the title role is frequently accompanied by four Shadow Marnies, each dressed in a different color and singing with a spooky lack of vibrato, who highlight her inner conflict and octopus-like talent for disguise. Another successful feature is the group of silent male dancers dressed as menacing noir detectives who appear in various scenes to heighten the drama.

Isabel Leonard as Marnie and Christopher Maltman as Mark Rutland in Nico Muhly’s Marnie (photo by Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Wright sets the story in 1959 England, following Graham’s novel. Marnie, a young clerk at an accounting firm, meets an attractive client named Mark Rutland. After the other employees have left, Marnie steals a large sum of money from the safe. Quickly moving to another city, she changes her look and identity (this is hardly her first rodeo), and then applies for a job at a printing company. She is shocked to find herself interviewed by Mark, who hires her after appearing not to recognize her. Marnie quits when her new boss makes a pass at her. She tries to steal from the safe before skipping town again, but Mark catches her. He gives her two options: she can marry him, or he will hand her over to the police. On their honeymoon, he reveals that he knew who she was all along, then sexually assaults her.

Time goes by, and we find Marnie trapped in a truly miserable marriage. At Mark’s insistence, she starts to see a psychoanalyst, who helps her recover the repressed image of her dead baby brother, for whose death her mother blames her. Marnie is later thrown from her favorite horse during a fox hunt, and Mark is injured while trying to help her. She leaves him at the hospital, returns to the office, and tries to steal from the safe, but can’t go through with it now that she has feelings for him. In the final scene, after her mother has died, an old family friend reassures her that it was her mother who killed her brother. Marnie turns herself into the police, saying, “I’m free.”

Isabel Leonard (far right) in the title role of Nico Muhly’s Marnie with (l. to r.) Rebecca Ringle Kamarei, Deanna Breiwick, Peabody Southwell, and Dísella Lárusdóttir as the Shadow Marnies (photo by Ken Howard / Met Opera)

The production makes extensive use of projections, as so many productions do nowadays. (I wonder when we will return to scenery.) While Julian Crouch’s projection design has some exciting moments — for example, a shifting display of faces slightly dissimilar to Marnie’s, at times color-coordinated with the bright costumes of the Shadow Marnies — other moments lack such imagination. Particularly flat are the rolling clouds that appear at the end as Marnie learns to forgive herself and the still, green foliage before the foxhunt.

Listening to baritone Christopher Maltman, as Mark, was one of the best parts of the evening. His clear, full voice gave his character menace — an important quality, given the real danger he poses to Marnie and the violence he inflicts on her. Countertenor Iestyn Davies (playing Terry Rutland, Mark’s “wayward” brother with designs on Marnie and on the firm) sang with impressive power. The decisions to write the treacherous brother’s character in a more “feminine” voice part and to portray him with a facial deformity were crudely stereotypical choices on the part of the creative team — there is even a cringe-inducing line about his “mark of Cain” — but the singer can hardly be blamed.

Christopher Maltman as Mark Rutland and Isabel Leonard in the title role of Nico Muhly’s Marnie (photo by Ken Howard / Met Opera)

After seeing Marnie, I kept asking myself — and struggling to answer — why this story needs to be retold. In the first act, it seemed relevant to today’s re-evaluation of gender norms and the ways in which powerful men exploit their power for sexual and psychosexual gain. But the narrative does not bear out this interpretation. The second half shows Mark mostly as a sweet, sincere husband who made the one-time mistake of blackmailing a woman into marriage and raping her. “But he really loves her!” the story seems to say in the end. “Why can’t she see it?” The opera’s creators could have intended Mark as a negative characterization, but it seems unlikely given the way the story apologizes for him in the second half.

Nevertheless, the Met should be applauded for taking a chance on a new work. It is important for today’s composers to have space to experiment with the art form, and not every new opera will be a masterpiece. Fortunately, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the Met’s new music director, has expressed an intent to commission more world-premiere operas, a departure from the Met’s long habit of presenting only US and North American premieres as a recognition of their quality. Marnie has some strong moments as well as some weaker ones, but we should all hope the Met won’t retreat from innovation in the coming seasons.

Marnie continues at the Metropolitan Opera (30 Lincoln Center Plaza, Manhattan) through November 10.

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