Review: Nico Muhly’s ‘Marnie’ Brings Hitchcock Into the 21st Century

The storytelling is notably clearer in this new piece than in Mr. Muhly’s last opera, “Two Boys,” which had its premiere at English National Opera in 2011 and played at the Met in 2013. That work struggled to contain its too-crazy-for-fiction true-crime story in an invented police-procedural frame.

“Marnie” is more streamlined and straightforward, its pacing more assured and its characters more focused. The particulars of the plot are never in doubt; Mr. Mayer’s production, with its candy-colored midcentury dresses and shifting panels, moves smoothly and stylishly. In the title role, the mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke sings with both warmth and a barely concealed backbone of steel, and projects ruefulness and the tiniest touch of humor.

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Sasha Cooke, and Marnie’s four “shadows,” who echo her singing in the tone of Renaissance madrigals. Credit Richard Hubert Smith

But the fundamental problem of “Two Boys” is that of “Marnie,” too: a sense that atmosphere reigns over drama. Mr. Muhly’s style is inherently restive — it’s all unsettled motion, shot through with tender exhalations — but the sound world is so hyper-polished and unvarying that the restlessness feels paradoxically static.

In a program note, Mr. Muhly speaks to the musical and emotional layers of his score, writing of one scene that Marnie “can sing the business-casual phrases required of her, chipper and practical, whereas in the pit, the solo oboe shows us that she is already trying to find a way out of that room as quickly as possible.” This is doubtless all there, but those contrasts barely register for the listener, who hears mostly bland declamation, with pretty moodiness simmering below. Tension is telegraphed by a pristine mixture of yawning low instruments and eerie high glistening.

This kind of prettiness might work in a three-minute song setting or a nine-minute concerto movement. But over two acts and 140 minutes, you sorely feel the lack of variety.

“Marnie” does have moments of suggestive idiosyncrasy. A jagged violin solo as Marnie waits for her icy mother to come into the room is an economical evocation of a broken relationship and broken mind. An interlude of sour flutes captures just the way she feels about her husband’s lecherous brother.

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Alasdair Elliott as Mr. Strutt and a chorus of workers at an office Marnie has robbed. Credit Richard Hubert Smith

It makes sense that Mr. Muhly, whose great passion is for the English church vocal tradition, gives Marnie a quartet of “shadows,” female singers who surround and sometimes echo her in the cool, vibratoless mode of a Renaissance madrigal. It’s weird and memorable and only Mr. Muhly would have — could have — done it.

But an earthshaking early chorus that tries to establish the high stakes of Marnie’s endless escapes sounds like it’s wandered in from the Verdi Requiem. “Justice cannot be avoided,” the singers scream. “When will discovery come?” Calm down, you want to shout back.

Marnie has some aria-type monologues, but there is little opportunity for Ms. Cooke to depict the gap between reality and her character’s self-understanding. One of the page-turning pleasures of the novel is how we see Marnie growing closer to her husband, Mark Rutland, before she does; in the opera their relationship never seems to deepen. The bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch, as Mark, sings robustly but is a cipher, leaving Marnie without a real foil.

But that may be intentional: There appears to be little desire on the part of the creators for the opera’s Mark to be the strange Svengali-Pygmalion figure — part hero, part villain, part weak, part strong — he is in the novel and film. Marnie doesn’t need him when her latest reinvention is for our age of self-empowerment and self-actualization.

“I’ll be there for myself,” she sings at the very end, when Mark asks if she’ll be there for him after, we presume, her stint in prison. “That’s all I know for now.”

This new identity — 21st-century gal — is Marnie’s least convincing.

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