Marnie, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, November 2017

From a powerful start with timpani and clashing chords, illustrating the energy and activity of a busy office, this opera opens out into thriller.

Marnie and her alter egos, all images Richard Hubert Smith

As Marnie steals and steals again, giving money to her crabby mother to assuage some mysterious guilt, you wonder what next for this strangely self-absorbed young woman, and as a friend said at the interval, it’s a page-turner. The story itself, well told in Nicholas Wright’s libretto taken from Winston Graham’s novel — itself the basis for a well-known Hitchcock movie — is admirably suited to operatic treatment where music and words can subtly diverge in meaning. For example when Marnie’s mother says that her daughter is “bad all through” the music disagrees, and when referring to the killing of her baby brother, the music reveals hidden truths that elicit our sympathy for Marnie.

Marnie and husband Mark

Composer Nico Muhly, whose earlier opera, Two Boys was a great ENO success six years ago in a co-production with the Met in New York, has really hit the mark in this new co-production, scheduled for its Met debut next autumn. His genius at providing a sympathetic portrayal of damaged people allows us to experience the world from Marnie’s perspective, trapped and forever needing to escape. In the dénouement when she has finally laid to rest the ghosts of the past — who first appear darkly through a glass door — the background of blue sky and clouds show she is finally free, albeit accompanied by two police officers. A sadly serene ending to a compelling operatic drama.

Marnie and brother-in-law Terry

The simple sets and projection imagery by Julian Crouch and 59 Productions help us enter the mind of this disturbed young woman, clothed in an ever changing series of costumes by Arianne Phillips, with everything superbly lit by Kevin Adams. This production by Broadway veteran Michael Mayer, making his first entry into opera, is outstanding. The four subsidiary Marnie singers in different colours express the chameleon nature of a woman who cannot tolerate intimacy, even with husband Mark (bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch), the boss who compels her to marry him, let alone his playboy brother Terry (counter-tenor James Laing). These are damaged goods too in their way, sons of a powerful mother (Lesley Garrett), but incompetent to run the business founded by their late father.

Free at last

Fine cameos by Kathleen Wilkinson as Marnie’s bitingly ungrateful mother, by Diane Montague as the mother’s neighbour, Alasdair Elliott as the vengeful businessman Mr Strutt, Darren Jeffery as the psychiatrist, and William Brady as the little boy at Marnie’s mother’s house. An excellent performance by the chorus, and terrific conducting under the baton of Martyn Brabbins, who brought the full orchestra on stage at the end — a nice touch reflecting his debut as musical director of the Company. But the star of the show was surely mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke as Marnie herself, clear of tone, with effortless power and commanding stage presence.

Nico Muhly’s third opera, commissioned by the Met, brings to life a young woman’s escape from the guilt laid upon her in childhood until, finally apprehended by the law, she is free at last. A gripping evening of operatic drama worth every one of the five stars it will surely receive.

Performances continue on various dates until Dec 3 — for details click here.

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