The Metropolitan Opera has been premiering new operas since 1907. This practice is an admirable attempt to vivify the art form.  Yet only two operas premiered at the Met have found a place in the standard repertory – both by Puccini. The first Met commissioned opera was La Fanciulla Del West in 1907. It’s better than ever and getting stronger with each new year. In 1918 Il Trittico (three one act operas) appeared for the first time anywhere at the Met – they’ll be back later this season. That’s it, nothing else has stuck.

Composer Nico Muhly was engaged to write Marnie by both the English National Opera and the Met.  The libretto was by Nicholas Wright. The ENO performed the opera before it got to New York. It is based on Winston Graham’s novel. This novel was also the source of the Alfred Hitchcock film. Muhly’s musical language resembles that of John Adams. He is a technician who while fluent has virtually nothing to say. The opera’s two acts were a slog made easier by the general excellence of the cast and production. There’s not a tune of any kind in the work and only a very few moments of dramatic intensity. Today’s telecast was the final performance of the Met’s run of Marnie. I’ll be greatly surprised if we see it again.

The trouble with Marnie, and all operas written after 1950, is that it is entirely subsumed by recitatives. Yet modern operatic composers seem unable to write recitatives that have any life to them. They sound like a six year old could compose them. Listen to any opera by any secondary 19th century Italian and you will find recitatives that have some interest and life.

A composer of genius might have been able to make something out of the story of a disturbed young woman who becomes a sexually repressed serial thief. But it would have been hard, especially since I suspect that such a composer would have picked a different story. In fact, one of the main reasons for the lack of successful contemporary operas may be the absence of stories which would be taken seriously in the 21st century and which could be the basis for a great opera. The simple and unashamed depiction of basic emotions lacks currency. But these types of plots are what opera requires. So would be Verdis or Puccinis are forced into librettos which are antithetical to demands of the lyric theater.

The Met went all out in this production. Sets, costumes, soloists, chorus, and orchestra were all first rate. Too bad that they weren’t in the service of a better vehicle. American mezzo Isabel Leonard was the title character. She had both the voice and good looks required by the part. Her sound is rich and evenly produced over her entire range. She was followed around by four mini-Marmies, actually maxi Manries, billed as ‘Shadow Marines’. I’m not sure what they were doing, but I suppose they were to reflect different sides of Marnie’s conflicted psyche. There’s even a scene when Marnie goes, along with her shadows, to see a shrink. He, as far as can be told, didn’t help her at all.

Christopher Maltman was Marnie’s employer who blackmailed her into an unconsummated marriage. He was in much better voice than in the prima on October 19 when his voice had more wobbles than Bobblehead. But the vocal tremors were not on display in this afternoon’s show.

Countertenor Iestyn Davies was Maltman’s brother Terry. He had a large port wine stain on his face which was meant to show his outsiderness. I am not a fan of men singing falsetto, so I won’t say more.

Veteran mezzo Denyce Graves was Marnie’s wicked mother – imagine Lady Macbeth with kids. Well the parts not that fleshed out, but there’s a kernel of truth in the description. Graves was in fine voice after an absence from the company of more than a dozen years. The rest of the cast acquitted themselves with distinction.

This opera marked the Met debut of conductor Robert Spano. He got as much as was possible from Muhly’s spare score. The audience reacted enthusiastically to this performance. They always pretend to like new operas, it’s a first cousin of virtue signaling. But they’ll never buy a second ticket.

Director Michael Mayer used sliding sets and projections by Julian Crouch and 59 Productions with skill and imagination. Marnie’s dozen and a half or more changes of costume were paced like a Bullet Train. But no amount of theatrical skill, and there was plenty here, could compensate for music that lacked charm or danger. Video Director Habib Azar was appropriately unobtrusive. La Traviata, in a new production, is up next month. It will provide a demonstration of what modern opera unsuccessfully seeks, in terms of artistic excellence, to replicate.

 

Metropolitan Opera House
November 10, 2018

MARNIE
Nico Muhly/Nicholas Wright/William Graham

Marnie………………Isabel Leonard
Mark Rutland…………Christopher Maltman
Marnie’s Mother………Denyce Graves
Mr. Strutt…………..Anthony Dean Griffey
Terry Rutland………..Iestyn Davies
Laura Fleet………….Ashley Emerson
Malcom Fleet…………Will Liverman
Derek……………….Ian Koziara
Miss Fedder………….Marie Te Hapuku
Mrs. Rutland…………Janis Kelly
Dr. Roman……………James Courtney
Lucy………………..Jane Bunnell
Dawn………………..Stacey Tappan
Little Boy…………..Gabriel Gurevich
Shadow Marnies: Deanna Breiwick, Disella Lárusdóttir, Rebecca Ringle Kamarei, Peabody Southwell

Conductor…………………Robert Spano

Production………………..Michael Mayer
Set Designer………………Julian Crouch
Projection Designer………..Julian Crouch and 59 Productions
Costume Designer…………..Arianne Phillips
Lighting Designer………….Kevin Adams
Choreographer……………..Lynne Page
Dramaturg…………………Paul Cremo
Video Director…………… Habib Azar