Neo-classical star Nico Muhly's operatic thriller sounds great but lacks the twists and turns of Hitchcock's iconic film version
Sharing a plot with Hitchcock’s 1964 film of the same name, the ENO’s new opera ‘Marnie’ could have been thrilling stuff. It follows a troubled female thief who swaps identities as easily as she changes handbags, defrauding a succession of earnest small businessmen in ’50s small towns. But although American composer Nico Muhly has picked a story that’s full of soaring highs and lows, somehow the result feels dour, not operatic.
Muhly’s music is, admittedly, utterly beautiful. His approach feels like a close relative of verbatim musicals like the NT’s ‘London Road’, where snippets of conversation weave in and out of each other, each following their own uncertain, unsettling trajectory. We first see Marnie in the bustling office of a small accountancy firm, and Nicholas Wright’s libretto is stuffed with telling details that bring its staid mid-century inhabitants to life. The ENO’s wonderfully characterful (as well as wonderfully voiced) chorus sing of enclosing invoices, and longing for boyfriends. At the end of the working day they all spill out into the pub to order a deliciously retro selection of obliviating tipples (anyone for Babycham?).
Their striking first act chorus sets them in one solid mass, crying out for vengeance like twinsetted furies as Marnie makes off with the office’s takings. Sadly, Muhly’s score doesn’t deliver too many other moments of memorable power. Muhler and Wright have gone back to Winston Graham's original UK-set 1961 novel for their source material, meaning they lose all the crafty twists Hitchcock added to amp up the tension. Instead, they’ve gone for a kind of post-Weinstein approach which emphasises Marnie’s vulnerability to male predators in the workplace. But this is no 21st century thriller, as emphasised by Marnie’s gradual loss of all agency, the muddled, vaguely Freudian probings into her sexuality, and her tastelessly handled, B-movie style suicide attempt (projected red blood swirls from Marnie’s wrist).
It’s exciting to see the ENO’s huge stage and even bigger talents being turned over to a new work. But combined with Wright’s ponderous, wordy libretto, Muhly’s music is more like a gently magical soundtrack to a monochrome story then a soaring force of its own. Sasha Cooke makes a compelling heroine, combining fire with ruthless accuracy - she transcends, but can’t transform this opera’s grey world.