Back in June 2011 English National Opera staged the world premiere of Nico Muhly’s first opera, Two Boys – a co-production with the Metropolitan in New York. Now history repeats itself as the 36-year-old American composer’s third opera, based on Winston Graham’s novel Marnie – the subject also of Hitchcock’s famous 1964 movie starring Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery – makes its debut at the Coliseum; it, too, is on its way to New York.
The idea for the new work, apparently, was director Michael Mayer’s, but Muhly himself feels that the subject ‘screams for an operatic treatment’. During the work’s creation he recalls the appearance of Hedren’s autobiography with its account of Alfred Hitchcock’s controlling and aggressively sexual predatory behaviour towards her; now the operatic Marnie receives its premiere at a time when similar ongoing revelations about the alleged behaviour of Harvey Weinstein and other celebrated figures in film and theatre are on everyone’s minds.
Together with ENO’s top-quality cast, librettist Nicholas Wright, director Mayer and the composer handle difficult subject matter and some tricky scenes with sensitivity as well as responsibility.
There are numerous differences from the plot of the Hitchcock version, among which the setting in 1950s England – evocatively conjured in the text with period references, and on stage by Julian Crouch and 59 Productions’ designs and Arianne Phillips’ sensational costumes – stands out.
But in some respects the result feels not only more ambiguous in terms of the flawed yet fascinating central figures, but also more psychologically satisfying.
Much of this is down to a score that shows a significant development in Muhly’s art, both in terms of technical skill and expressive power; he handles his forces with increased command as well as discretion, revealing the interiors of his complex characters. The result is an outstanding achievement.
The show is also the first to be conducted by Martyn Brabbins since his appointment as the company’s music director, and he equally demonstrates complete authority. Bringing the entire and excellent orchestra onstage to take a bow at the end of the evening, meanwhile, was a moving gesture; with its own substantial role in the piece, ENO’s chorus too shows its collective mettle.
But it is the quality of the central performances that sets the seal on a remarkable success. Highlighting the words as well as the lyricism of their vocal lines, Sasha Cooke’s Marnie and Daniel Okulitch’s Mark Rutland explore their characters’ complexity within an engrossing overview of their troubled and troubling relationship.
Far more than mere decorative gestures are the regular appearances of the four ‘Shadow Marnies’, who add to our understanding of the central character’s fractured personality, while a sinister group of male dancers dressed like 1950s gumshoes attempts to hunt Marnie down.
Elsewhere counter-tenor James Laing reveals the sheer creepiness of Mark’s twisted brother Terry, while Lesley Garrett steals a couple of scenes as their domineering mother. Kathleen Wilkinson and Diana Montague flesh out small but crucial parts as Marnie’s mum and her neighbour Lucy, while Alasdair Elliott seizes the opportunities granted to Marnie’s vengeful, petty-minded boss, Strutt.