Marnie at the Metropolitan Opera: A Retrograde Adaptation (Web Exclusive)
by Richard Porton

Isabel Leonard as Marnie in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Nico Muhly’s Marnie.

The advertisements for Nico Muhly’s Marnie, which premiered at New York’s Metropolitan Opera on October 19th, proclaim, in a rather mealy-mouthed fashion, that the opera is “based on the novel that inspired Hitchcock’s film.” What can account for the Met’s odd decision to dissociate itself from a famous, if not precisely canonical, cinematic landmark? Muhly emphasizes that he and librettist Nicholas Wright relied more on Winston Graham’s novel than the movie and, for various reasons, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1964 film—also named Marnie, of course—has never ceased being controversial. At the time of its initial release, the film failed to meet the expectations of what audiences had come to expect from a prototypical Hitchcock thriller. Many critics were unimpressed by Tippi Hedren’s performance, a studio-bound aesthetic, the use of painted backdrops, and the script’s reductive Freudian denouement. 

A reassessment of the film was spearheaded by Robin Wood’s claim in 1965’s Hitchcock’s Films that Marnie was “flawless” and one of the director’s “richest and most fully achieved masterpieces.” In recent years, Marnie has become more than slightly suspect among some commentators because of star Tippi Hedren’s revelation that she was persistently stalked and harassed by Hitchcock, thereby aligning her own plight with her character’s victimization. Nevertheless, if we heed D. H. Lawrence’s advice to “never trust the teller, trust the tale,” it’s easier to understand why feminists like Tania Modleski have suggested that active female spectators can “deconstruct” the film’s male bias while Lucretia Knapp’s “queer reading” seeks to subvert a film that might, from a superficial viewpoint, appear incorrigibly “heterosexist.”

Marnie (Isabel Leonard) and Mark Rutland (Christopher Maltman) on their honeymoon in  Marnie.

Marnie (Isabel Leonard) and Mark Rutland (Christopher Maltman) on their honeymoon in Marnie.

It may also be of some significance to point out that a woman, Jay Presson Allen, was responsible for the film’s script. Yet the crux of Marnie’s incendiary place within Hitchcock’s corpus certainly derives from his unquestionably fetishistic portrait of a woman in distress, a kleptomaniac who derives more sexual frisson from stealing than from intimacy with men. Perhaps more crucially, in the #MeToo era audiences have to deal with the troubling, contradictory figure of Mark Rutland, played by Sean Connery in the film. A man drawn to Marnie despite her larcenous activities, he marries her as much because of than despite her criminality and then proceeds to rape her on their honeymoon. Both a protector and a predator, he is an inherently ambiguous protagonist. 

It’s clear that anyone tackling a twenty-first century operatic adaptation of Marnie can’t afford to be oblivious to the pitfalls of such an enterprise. After all, the Met’s repertoire is top-heavy with operas in which women are simultaneously celebrated and demonized. In an interview with The New York Times, Muhly cast himself as a gay composer determined to create a “ fictional world” geared “explicitly to the pressurized environment of women’s lives now.”

But despite remarkably high-minded, politically correct intentions, Muhly’s Marnie is markedly less subversive than Hitchock’s film and fails in its mission to make an au courant statement on “the pressurized environment of “women’s lives now.” This musical revamping of Marnie is certainly not without its redeeming attributes. Muhly’s score intriguingly combines melodic and dissonant motifs. The mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard is a strong Marnie, both visibly neurotic and fiercely independent—until, that is, a pivotal juncture in the opera. Probing the vicissitudes of Marnie’s inner turmoil with four “shadow Marnies” who constitute a discordant chorus meant to evoke early music conventions (particularly Monteverdi) is a novel device, even though it yields diminishing returns as the evening progresses. 

Marnie (Isabel Leonard) and her “shadows” in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Nico Muhly’s Marnie.

While the first act doesn’t, despite the advance hoopla, foretell a radical reinterpretation, there are some promising moments. Wright is clearly influenced by Winston Graham’s decision to restrict the point of view to Marnie’s unreliable narration—a tricky maneuver that assists in cementing the audience’s empathy with Marnie’s perspective. The heroine’s (or antiheroine’s, if you will) shifting identities are handled briskly; the transformation from mousy secretary to self-assured thief is conveyed efficiently. 

There’s also a clear rationale for switching the American locale of Hitchcock’s film back to the post World War II England of Graham’s novel. As Wright explains, a chameleon-like Marnie fits in well with the changing nature of 1950s England. Despite grim austerity, old hierarchies were being overturned and resourceful entrepreneurs mounted a challenge to the country’s rigid class structure.

Unfortunately, Marnie’s narrative edifice collapses in the second act and an oddly conservative conclusion makes a mockery of Muhly and Wright’s progressive aspirations. While there’s a sort of truce between Marnie and Mark at the end of Hitchcock’s Marnie, the opera takes a 180-degree turn and intimates that the recalcitrant thief now loves her oppressor. On the verge of being arrested, she abandons the dead weight of her guilt but vows not to steal again. Most astonishingly, as she’s led off to prison, she exclaims—“I’m free.” Muhly and Wright’s ending implies that incarceration can be redemptive. By contrast, Hitchcock’s Marnie remains a transgressive figure—an object of voyeurism to be sure but still, despite the director’s disturbing blend of lasciviousness, cruelty, and empathy, an unruly woman who has no desire to be locked up for her sins. 

Richard Porton is a Cineaste editor and author of Film and the Anarchist Imagination, due in 2019 from Verso in a revised second edition.

Copyright © 2018 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XLIV, No. 1