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by on 27 November 2017

Tangled Trauma


by Nico Muhly , libretto by Nicholas Wright

English National Opera, London Coliseum until 3rd December

World Premiere, directed by Michael Mayer

Review by Suzanne Frost

In recent years, there has been a sudden – and entirely overdue -quest for female-centred narratives, from movies to books to television, as if the entirety of pop culture had suddenly decided that women are actually interesting. As part of this culture shift, a trend occurred for the unsympathetic heroine: from Gillian Flynn’s Amy in Gone Girl to House of Cards’ Claire Underwood to Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games, women who don’t have the word “nice“ as their defining quality are all the rage. Marnie is such a woman, a complex, tangled, traumatised, manipulative, revengeful and wounded character and it is extremely interesting to find out how such a character fares in the world of opera.


Marnie is a world premiere, which is hugely exciting in its own right, opera being such a traditional museolised art form where newness is rarely added to the repertory. The American Nico Muhly is the youngest composer ever to have been commissioned by the ENO (in coproduction with the Metropolitan Opera) with the creation of a new work and being able to witness such an event is of course a huge privilege. Alas, Marnie is an odd one to see in an operatic setting, one that I struggle forming an opinion on. One that still makes me contemplate if I liked it or not, days later. Which is good in a way, I suppose.

Why on earth Marnie? No doubt, the thieving, identity changing, obsessive compulsive liar with a dark secret is a compelling, hugely layered and complex character – but one that isn’t easily portrayed with an aria or two. Opera, simplistically said, lives from grand emotions. Marnie keeps all her feelings locked up, under control, half of them are just acted out for the sake of manipulation, half of them she doesn’t even realise she has. Opera adores a great romantic sacrificial love story. Marnie is the definition of an anti-love story, all the people on stage despise each other to some extend and are, each in their own way, despicable. The settings – a cruise liner, a fox hunt, a bland office – all seem impossibly non-theatrical and none of this screams opera. Nevertheless, this is an experiment of pushing the art form somewhere unusual and it is interesting – if not entirely successful.


Muhly and his librettist Nicholas Wright base their opera not on the famous Hitchcock film but on the original novel by Winston Graham who – fun fact – is also the author of the Poldark series. I have never read the novel but the programme (and may I just say here, the ENO produces excellent programmes full of information and interesting texts rather than just ads and images: they are well worth the £5, unlike in so many other venues) offers snippets from the novel, which is written in the first person. From those phrases, a Marnie emerges who is full of undercurrent desire and sensuality, cunning, wit, smarting and passion and an autoerotic sexuality that is not levelled at men but at power, money, daring and winning. That Marnie rarely comes to live on the stage. Muhly links his reading of Marnie to Debussy’s Mélisande, another mysterious troubled female who rejects physical contact and obviously carries some kind of trauma with her. But Mélisande is the portrayal of the eternal child woman, a frail and vulnerable girl who desires only pure platonic love and doesn’t survive maturing into motherhood. Marnie’s fear and hate of men, her disgust at sex and her inability or unwillingness to trust anyone do not stem from immaturity. I think that kind of reading underestimates her, just as the psychoanalyst completely underestimates the extent of Marnie’s trauma: a scene I truly loved. The way this- naturally- male doctor pesters her about her attitude towards childbirth, lazily reducing women’s trouble to only ever womb related issues and his mouth-gaping awe when the true extend of murder and violence emerges.


Marnie is constantly followed by four “Shadow Marnies”, a visualisation of her past identities or her split personality. Musically this is stunning as they echo Marnie in close harmony creating a haunting sound. Dramaturgically I find it more problematic: can we not accept that one woman can be multifaceted and many faced without being physically split? Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke is an accomplished actress and I would have trusted her to portray all of Marnie’s intricate emotional landscape. I feel equally dubious about the company of shadow men, a group of suited dancers that follow Marnie around. They symbolise the ever present threat that Marnie feels from masculinity, but their constant frantic movement doesn’t really add much. Except in the before mentioned psychotherapy scene where the men seem to be leering at Marnie’s exposed vulnerability, taking in her suffering as some sort of titillating spectacle, lounging on the floor with their legs spread. They finally made sense to me when they stopped moving.


Completely convincing, on the other hand, is Muhly’s use of the ENO chorus: every time Marnie ventures into any kind of social environment her every action is underscored with a soundscape of gossiping and judging, revealing society’s deeply ingrained misogyny. The whispering hypocritical chorus condemns Marnie for her coldness and frigidity just as they condemned her mother for freely living out her sexuality.


Very clearly, this opera makes a point about the pressure that women are under and very clearly, in the age of pussy grabbing presidents and the Harvey Weinstein scandal, plus of course the revelations of Hitchcock’s own misconduct and bullying of his leading ladies, this is a hugely relevant and current subject. But here, with this multitude of ambiguous characters, it is difficult to pick sides. There is no easy villain to condemn, no clear hero to root for – on an opera stage where normally story telling is so black and white. I thought of Aribert Reimann’s Medea and how strongly and decisively he portrayed the child murderess as a victim of circumstances. With Marnie, I felt my sympathies shifting from scene to scene, from character to character. I was almost offended at Marnie’s husband Mark being portrayed in his lyrical aria as some kind of romantic hero, furiously scribbling in my notebook how this man’s crimes – attempted rape and blackmailing Marnie into marriage nonetheless– are easily forgiven…. when I stopped my pen and realised how masterfully Muhly uses music to manipulate even the audience. For the genre of opera, this shifting of sympathies and ambiguity of characters is very very interesting but also very difficult. Marnie should be a fascinating person but her emotional detachment makes her at times an non-engaging presence on stage while the dubious character of Mark is troublingly charming, sung by the sharp looking Daniel Okulitch. The countertenor voice of James Laing gives a great sleazy quality to Mark’s rivalling brother Terry. Both Mark’s and Marnie’s mothers are characterised as plain old horrible, manipulative and overbearing the one, unloving and ice cold the other. Women, it seems, just can’t get it right. I would have liked a bit more fleshing out and nuancing for Marnie’s mother who, as we later learn, smothered her new born out-of-wedlock baby. With all the underlying motivations undercutting every action, I don’t accept the murder of the child as an act of pure evil, more likely an act of desperation of a different kind. Visually, the opera is stunning, sleek, stylish, simple, smooth.


The libretto feels, at times, clunky. One critic called it a “peasant libretto” which is harsh, but, since all real emotion is subconscious or kept at bay, the dialogue that gets expressed is often banal lines such as “that dreadful man from the country club” sung in a stylised operatic manner. Though it never felt comedic, it was often slightly awkward. Musically it was pleasant, at times beautiful, but hardly ever thrilling or memorable. Few scenes are emotional or passionate, which is down to the subject matter. But then even dramatic high points, such as the suicide attempt lack impact, as Marnie’s emotions never seem genuine. Tender scenes such as her grieving for her horse Forio are more touching. Opera needs some real emotions. In the end, when the cause of Marnie’s trauma is revealed and her guilt is lifted, there is a real sense of release, healing and freedom. All in, I found it hugely interesting, thought provoking and ambitious – but maybe too ambiguous for its own good.

Suzanne Frost
November 2017

Photographs by Richard Hubert Smith

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