Monday 20 November 2017

Grand dramatic sweep and an elusive heroine: Nico Muhly's Marnie premieres at ENO

Nico Muhly: Marnie - English National Opera (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Nico Muhly: Marnie - The hunt scene - English National Opera (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Nico Muhly Marnie; Sasha Cooke, Daniel Okulitch, James Laing, Lesley Garrett, dir: Michael Mayer, cond: Martyn Brabbins; English National Opera at the London Coliseum
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Nov 18 2017 Star rating: 4.5
A confident and large-scale contemporary grand opera which successfully translates Winston Graham's psychological thriller to the stage

Nico Muhly: Marnie - Sasha Cooke & dancers - English National Opera (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Sasha Cooke & dancers - (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Alfred Hitchcock's film Marnie (with Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery) is undoubtedly familiar (though I have to confess never to have seen the film), but Winston Graham's novel (on which the film was based) is less so. But it is Graham's novel which forms the basis for Nico Muhly's new opera, Marnie, with a libretto by dramatist Nicholas Wright, which premiered at English National Opera on Saturday 19 November 2017. Sasha Cooke was Marnie and Daniel Okulitch as Mark Rutland with a cast including James Laing, Lesley Garrett, Kathleen Wilkinson, Diana Montague, Alasdair Elliott, Eleanor Dennis, Matthew Durkan, Darren Jeffery, Alexa Mason, Charlotte Beament, Katie Coventry, Emma Kerr and Katie Stevenson. The production, which  is a co-production with the Metropolitan Opera in New York, was conducted by Martyn Brabbins (his first engagement as ENO's music director), and directed by Michael Mayer with sets by Julian Crouch & 59 Productions Ltd, costumes by Arianna Phillips, lighting by Kevin Adams and movement by Lynne Page.

Muhly and Wright's Marnie is a big work, lasting nearly three hours including an interval, it is a large scale show designed to take advantage of the size of the Coliseum stage and use the chorus to full advantage. Unusually for a contemporary opera, this is grand opera, there are large scale crowd scenes and a big dramatic sweep (the climactic scene takes places on the hunting field).

Nico Muhly: Marnie - Daniel Okulitch & Sasha Cooke - English National Opera (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Daniel Okulitch & Sasha Cooke - (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Muhly's music is wonderfully seductive, and his writing for the orchestra was beautifully engaging, quite rightly the orchestra came on stage at the end for a bow. Muhly's style involves writing expressive, lyric dialogue but counterpointing this with a strong orchestral score which comments and deepens the emotion. The results are very filmic, and Muhly's score often plays the role that classic film scores by Bernard Herrmann do, to deepen our knowledge of the emotional undercurrents.

That said, the surface beauty of the score was sometimes a little too much and it could easily float by and you had to make a conscious effort to discover the riches underneath. The opera seemed to rely too much on the fluid flow of dialogue, and for all the filmic immediacy you sometimes wondered 'why are these people singing?'. For me, the strongest parts of the score were the moments when Muhly moved from the filmic naturalism to something more expressionistic, and particularly some big ensemble moments, which took the drama into a more operatic realm. Nicholas Wright's libretto concentrated too much on the complexities of the plot, we got rather more than we needed of the sub-plot involving Mark Rutland's company, and not really enough of the background involving Marnie's mother.

Part of the problem with the opera is that the heroine (or anti-heroine) Marnie does not know herself, she spends her life lying, stealing, creating new identities and running away from emotional commitment and only at the end does she understand. Her final words in the opera were about her now being free. This meant that, though Marnie (Sasha Cooke) addressed us in series of monologues between scenes, these lacked any degree of self knowledge.

Nico Muhly: Marnie - Sasha Cooke & James Laing - English National Opera (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Sasha Cooke & James Laing - (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Ultimately, the work gripped me as a thriller but I came away still unclear as to why the character of Marnie held such a continuing fascination for Mark Rutland (Daniel Okulitch) and his brother Terry (James Laing). Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke gave a wonderfully poised and elegant account of the title role. It is quite a big role, and Cooke displayed admirable dramatic range and held our attention throughout. She came close to the character in the monologues, but ultimately I never understand Marnie or her attraction, and rather fatally did not really care for her. [Of course, this might simply be me, I have a similar problem with Massenet's heroine Manon]. But, Graham's novel is quite a complex psychological exercise (it is written purely from Marnie's point of view), and this type of plot is difficult to render in large scale opera.

Daniel Okulitch was wonderfully sympathetic as the flawed hero Mark. Despite the rape scene which forms the climax, Okulitch made us care for the character, perhaps too much so. I am not sure that the opera has quite, yet, brought off the balancing act of presenting Mark from his own point of view (he does not believe the rape was wrong), whilst also judging him. Unlike Marnie, Mark's character does get a powerful monologue exploring his emotional baggage and here Okultich was very fine.

James Laing gave a wonderfully nuanced performance as Terry Rutland, a playboy character whom we initially mistrust but whose care for Marnie leads him to set in motion the chain of events which leads to the climax. That said, we never really quite get under Terry's skin, and he lacked the sort of monologue which was given to Mark's character.

Nico Muhly: Marnie - Katie Coventry, Charlotte Beament, Sasha Cooke, Katie Stevenson, Emma Kerr - English National Opera (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Katie Coventry, Charlotte Beament, Sasha Cooke, Katie Stevenson, Emma Kerr
(Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Supporting these was a wide range of smaller but very important roles, requiring a strong line up of character singers including three strong roles for women of a certain age. Lesley Garrett was wonderful as Mark and Terry's mother, Mrs Rutland, cut glass and class conscious, Garrett had a whale of a time in her two scenes. Kathleen Wilkinson was Marnie's mother, tragic and put upon, we only gradually learn what lies behind this, and it is to Marnie's mother's neighbour Lucy (Diana Montague) to make the revelation at the very end. Here Montague delivered the crucial solo in a devastating manner, understated but relishing a juicy bits. But this aspect of the plot was a little underdeveloped, and I felt that the psychology of the piece would have benefited from us knowing more about Marnie's mother.

Alasdair Elliott was Marnie's former boss, giving him just the right odious edge, Eleanor Dennis and Matthew Durkan were the rather dodgy Laura and Malcolm Fleet, whilst Darren Jeffery was Marnie's psychoanalyst, a rather undercooked role. Alexa Mason gave a nicely pointed turn as a secretary, with three chorus members in step out roles, David Newman as Derek, Susanna Tudor-Thomas as Miss Fedder and Ella Kirkpatrick in the crucial role of Marnie's mother in 1940. William Brady or Leo Sellis played a mysterious young boy who hung about Marnie's mother's house.

Added to these were four non-realistic roles, the Shadow Marnies, Charlotte Beament, Katie Coventry, Emma Kerr and Katie Stevenson. Not characters in their own right, they formed a close harmony quartet, Muhly described the effect of their music 'as if her inner monologue is actually a warped recording of the Tallis Scholars singing a single chord from an obscure Tudor motet'. The result was wonderfully striking, and some of the most sonically fascinating moments were when the quartet overlaid the large scale ensembles to create a sound world so very particular and so very expressive.

Nico Muhly: Marnie - Diana Montague, Charlotte Beament, Sasha Cooke, Emma Kerr, Katie Stevenson - English National Opera (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Diana Montague, Charlotte Beament, Sasha Cooke, Emma Kerr, Katie Stevenson
(Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
The role of the chorus was deliberately large, and there were plenty of opportunities. Muhly wrote for the chorus in a diverse way, creating a multi-layered textures with individual solo moments rather than using block chords and the resulting scenes were fascinating and engaging. Perhaps the sheer imagination of them rather led things astray, though, and I wondered whether a little cutting might be in order to tighten the drama. That said the chorus gave a terrific performance, moving easily between fluid naturalism and moments of stylised expressionism, when things turn threatening.

This element of threat also came from a group of 11 male dancers who were often creeping about the stage, adding visually expressionist layer. I rather wanted their role to develop into something concrete, but it never quite did.

The sets, by Julian Crouch and 59 Productions Ltd. used projections to create their effects, and were an object lesson in how to keep multiple complex scenes flowing without having to resort to a drop curtain. Arianne Phillips's costumes were wonderfully elegant with some highly evocative 1950s outlines.

Martyn Brabbins kept all this under superb control, allowing the music space to flow whilst never overwhelming the singers. 

Diction was excellent and the surtitles were often redundant. Given the piece's determinedly British backdrop (place names like Brentford, Barnet, Bedford and Bournemouth), the American accents of the two leads, Sasha Cooke and Daniel Okulitch, rather stood out but that is inevitable, perhaps, in an international collaboration.

Nico Muhly: Marnie - Lesley Garrett, Daniel Okulitch - English National Opera (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Nico Muhly: Marnie - Lesley Garrett, Daniel Okulitch - English National Opera (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Marnie is an impressive achievement and a very striking contemporary opera. Ultimately I found that I did not care enough emotionally for the characters, but the drama itself was thrilling. It is currently a little too long, and a little to reliant on dialogue; I feel that the piece could do with tightening and it is worth bearing in mind that in opera, good music is not always good drama. But overall this was a striking new piece and Muhly's is an operatic talent that I hope will continue to develop.

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