For the character of Marnie in Nico Muhly’s second ENO world premiere, adapting and moving on is pretty much second nature. With a new hair colour and a swift change of identity, she can whisk herself off, unnoticed, to add new pearls to a glamorous string of crimes. With another name beginning with “M”, another town beginning “B”, another office and another desk, she can get closer to another business’s safe. For a serial fraud, it’s a winning combination.
For the story of Marnie, however, the process of adaptation is a little more jolting. Marnie, the narrative, began her life in 1961 as a crime novel written by British author, Winston Graham. Adapted for film in 1964, and shipped over the pond by Alfred Hitchcock, the movie Marnie saw its fraudulent protagonist lifting dollar sums so great they were rivalled only by box office takings. Now, contemporary opera composer Muhly teams up with librettist Nicholas Wright to present an opera adaptation that sits, jarringly, between times and continents.
But despite the ugly transatlantic lilt and anachronistic wobbles of the context, Muhly’s composition is deliciously forward-thinking – jolting, clean-cut and urgent. While those on stage battle with false identities, those in the pit join a flighty, frantic negotiation over truth. There’s taunting piccolo, tension-riding percussion, anxious horns and trepidatious flutes, all duelling with restrained yet potent assertions wrought in aggressively-sliced, cantering strings. Julian Crouch / 59 Productions’ set, too, rises to the challenge of deceit, as panels melt across the stage. It’s a wonderful watch – but there’s the constant sense that the production itself is facing something of an identity crisis, as video projections sway between the East Coast flavoured corrugated iron of Hitchcock’s Marnie, and the stained glass and garish wallpaper of a London boozer. The animated set works best when it pumps out psychological thrills – the billowing clouds, the galloping hooves and – as predicted by Muhly’s fleeting, overcast overture and punctured by Kevin Adams’s violent lighting design – the storms that trigger memories so strong, no amount of running can get Marnie away.
Above an orchestra bearing a torrent of implications, armed to underline the duplicity of the themes, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke’s efforts bring a sense of inescapable character to a woman who seeks to escape all characterisation, her natural, desperate sobs breaking artfully through a tightly-crafted vocal performance. But it’s hard to feel any allegiance here. For a start, Marnie – the story – hasn’t aged well, and is hostile towards a contemporary-leaning adaptation. We are swung back to 1960s England, back when the United Kingdom was one female prime minister away from realising that there could be such a thing as rape within a marriage (see: R v R; 1991), and two female prime ministers away from a 9.1% gender pay gap (see: your workplace). Marnie is blackmailed into marriage, pressured into sex and, all in all, treated like a slab of very fashionable meat. In another production, this would be enough to justify Marnie’s criminal actions – but something doesn’t quite add up. Her marriage to one of her victims seems flimsy, with neither partner coming across particularly convinced by their own motives. Nobody gets painting in a favourable light, and nobody gets their comeuppance.
Marnie, then, is a lukewarm, non-committal opera where the villains seem plentiful, but nobody falls from grace – and there’s something a little quaint, detached and fluffy about Marnie’s criminal efforts, like she’s the Etsy version of a 419 scam. In an early scene, female secretaries in rows of desks make small talk about their boyfriends; meanwhile, male counterparts busy themselves with grander statements about invoices and weather. ‘He can bump into me anytime,’ giggles a steamy colleague, when one of Marnie’s alter-egos helps a client to the door. It’s moments like this that mean we spend less time wondering why our lead gleefully leaves her already-decayed identities to rot, and more time wondering why anyone bothered to revive them in the first place.
Marnie is on until 3 December 2017 at the London Coliseum. Click here for more details.