Quarry in full flight
English National Opera, until December 3
Reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, 24 November
The best line in Alfred Hitchcock’s film Marnie (1964) comes after the newly- wed heroine’s suicide attempt in the swimming pool of her honeymoon cruise liner. Why didn’t she simply jump overboard? “The idea was to kill myself”, comes the bone-dry answer, quick as a flash, “not feed the damn fishes.” Not only has she mastered the sang-froid of her current mark (named Mark, as it happens), but the line reveals the razor-sharp edges of her character when under the threat of introspection. She has been raped and rescued, against her will, from drowning – and yet the shutters come down, escape routes are planned, and all lines of enquiry abruptly cut off. The demand to reflect on her motives is painful; she flinches and runs into the oblivion of instinct.
The most apposite line in this Marnie – a new opera by Nico Muhly and Nicholas Wright commissioned and co-produced by New York’s Metropolitan Opera, where it will go next year – is given not to Marnie, nor even to Mark, but to Mark’s brother (originally cousin) Terry. “You have less substance than a shadow. I could blow you away like smoke”, he muses threateningly. It’s apt because it reveals just how seriously Muhly and Wright seem to have misunderstood the novel by Winston Graham on which Hitchcock’s film and their opera is based. For it is only to Marnie herself that her nature is a mystery. To her readers and interlocutors, she is sharply drawn and electrifyingly present, as the quarry in full flight. In the opera, she is a blur.
The idea of making an opera from Marnie came originally from Michael Mayer, who directs the present show, and Muhly – whose Two Boys opened at the Coliseum in 2011 before moving, successfully, to the Met – was immediately taken with the idea. That’s understandable, undoubtedly, but there are two problems with the idea which here prove rather devastating. The novel and film are both suspense thrillers, a genre to which opera is largely unsuited. Or rather, to generate suspense opera must largely rely on musical devices. Muhly’s score provides a skilful melange of post-minimalist filigree, Monteverdian part-writing and Anglican harmony, flecked with tantalizing splashes of Bernard Herrmann (most audibly in the brief prelude), who composed the score for the film. The results are tremendously atmospheric but lack drive. One of the virtues of minimalist music is surely its stubborn insistence on ploughing on regardless, but Muhly’s repetitions wear themselves out all too briefly. The melodic shapes of the vocal parts are also diffused, in the orchestra, into oscillating woodwind and string textures which blur out nearly all sense of line. Together with the pairing of particular voices to particular instruments – Marnie to a probing oboe, Mark to growling trombone – there are brilliant ideas here, in many ways, but they are badly suited to the immediate context which cries out for a scent of something more visceral.
The more serious problem is that the engine of suspense in the story is the progressive weakening of Marnie’s resistance to introspection. But introspective reflection is opera’s expressive meat and drink, and Muhly and Wright lay it on in thick, static arias in which the heroine tells us how “she is caught in a vice” and deliberates blithely about which persona – and hairstyle – to adopt next, as if browsing in a department store. If blurring the character’s lines is an interpretative mistake, making her boring is unforgivable. But then her hunters are also boring. Mark is suave but an idiot. Terry is warmer but trips up on the bland libretto, which contents itself with telling us how fascinating Marnie and everyone is without ever quite showing us why. Their mother, a cameo role for Lesley Garrett, manages a few sparks and a quartet of shadow Marnies, who reflect past and possible personas, looks intriguing but is woefully underused musically.
If all this is a shame for the audience, it’s a particular shame for a cast and company who have pulled out all the stops to make the show work. In his debut as the company’s new music director, Martyn Brabbins controls the music’s protean textures with precision and controlled energy and the chorus excel in Muhly’s exquisitely drawn part-writing. The American mezzo Sasha Cooke gives as much life to Marnie’s drab vocal lines as they will permit and the countertenor James Laing makes a good stab at Terry. Michael Mayer’s staging, too, designed by Julian Crouch, is virtuosic, based around movable panels, each with its own projector, so that the entire scene can change in an instant, or focus on suggestive details. By itself, it makes for terrific theatre, as do Arianne Phillips’s superbly cut and coloured 1950s costumes.
One moment where the opera tiptoes on the edge of tragedy will stick with me. After Marnie arrives late to her mother’s funeral, and learns how she was never to blame for the death of her baby brother (one of a few alterations from the novel), the choir strike up with a beautifully harmonized rendition of “Praise, my soul, the King of Heaven”, broken into fragments which bite into the foreground duet. Here, finally, is a moment when opera’s natural expressive resources bring the drama to life. If only it had been made to last.