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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.

John Sherer

John Sherer is a writer based in Brooklyn. His poems and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The Point, Hot Metal Bridge, Botticelli Magazine, and Gulf Coast.

3 replies on “A Missed Chance for Female Empowerment in the Metropolitan Opera’s Marnie

  1. Does it apologize for Mark in the 2nd half? I didn’t think so. I thought they were going for something more in-line with the reality of the majority of rapists: they’re people you know – people who are gross and controlling, but also people who clearly see themselves as kind, good people.

    This was a more dangerous line to walk, as it easily COULD have seemed like the opera was taking Mark’s side and “redeeming” him (as if attempted rape is something you can just “get over”). The key for me was that Marnie specifically DOESN’T agree to come back to him after getting out of jail. With the guilt of her brother’s death lifted from her, she is focused on herself and her freedom, and rightly so. After getting out of jail, she can do anything. As she says, “All I know is I will be there for myself”.

    For me, the most muddled aspect was what they did with Terry, not Mark. I’m willing to believe that the composer/director did not intend for us to believe and embrace his about-face towards the end of the opera, but they could have made that a LOT more clear. As it was, it seemed weirdly like the sex offender suddenly turned into Marnie’s conscience/guardian angel in the last act. That was mishandled.

    1. Ral, I believe the way the composer/director handled Terry at the end was excellent. Many abused abusers feels they are redeemers of their pray. He thinks of himself as a guardian angel who loves Martie with pure love. His behaviour is also disgusting,, more so because of the bitterness he has lived with all his life.

  2. “I kept asking myself — and struggling to answer — why this story needs to be retold.”
    John, I can tell you why this story needs to be retold. Maybe it is retold just for the sake of those who can be freed like Martie at the end, and who come out of the theater repeating “I am free! I am also free! It was not my fault!” I am a victim of rape while keeping myself a virgin for my fiancé. I married someone I did not love and I rejected and hated all men. I felt I not worthy of marrying my fiance,

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