Marnie at English National Opera
Alfred Hitchcock’s film Marnie, starring Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery, was lightly based on the original book by Winston Graham. Hitchcock’s film ending was more dramatic perhaps than the books. The Composer, Nico Muhly, decides to stick more closely to the original book version, with skilful subtlety that is so prevalent in its musical score.
Marnie is the central character in the story, traumatised by the death of her brother, blamed incorrectly on her by her mother. She hides away from the reality of life by constantly changing her identity, becoming a new woman with the same initials in order to lie and steal her way through life. The cash she steals she uses to support her mother, hoping to get back into her good books. This whole story results in Marnie having a paranoid fear of sex or close relationships.
In an entirely empathetic performance, Sasha Cooke as Marnie, who is a compelling actress and singer, deals as best she can with the confrontations that life affords her, which unfortunately during the opera are somewhat limited in scope. In typical Carl Jung fashion, she is shadowed by four similar Marnie’s from her past, together with eight properly suited male dancers that reflect her nightmare. At times the music perhaps lacks the menace and gripping tension that is needed for some of the dramatic scenes and leaves too much of the melody as being unmemorable. The rape scene is maybe too sensitively handled, but I suspect, today, necessarily so.
That does not take anything away from the ingenious staging and sets designed by Julian Crouch and his team, together with the outstanding direction from Michael Mayer. The 1950’s British costumes by Arianne Phillips are fabulous.
Nico Muhly’s music is minimalist in concept and sometimes repetitive in ‘Glass’ fashion, seeming to grow in stature the longer the opera continues. The writing and performance, particularly for the chorus, was outstanding and the music was beautifully conducted and controlled by the English National Opera Music Director, Martyn Brabbins. The cast were tremendous, picking out particularly the Mrs Rutland of Lesley Garrett, who gave a ‘Maggie Smith Downton Abbey’ type performance – ‘don’t interrupt me!’
Through all the nasty and compelling issues in the book, of lies, theft, blackmail, infanticide, near suicide and rape, it is perhaps the journey from sexual exploitation and abuse of power – a la Weinstein – to a finale of true love that makes this outstanding world premiere – not without fault – a true love story in the modern tradition.