The circumstances for an operatic adaptation of Winston Graham’s 1961 novel Marnie have never been riper. Putting aside the recent revival of interest in Graham’s oeuvre inspired by certain shirtless scything in the Poldark series on the BBC, at a time when newspapers carry new stories every day of women being sexually assaulted by men in positions of power across politics and the arts, Graham’s story of a woman blackmailed into marriage and subsequently raped by her husband feels uncomfortably pertinent. With its strong lead, forceful supporting characters and intriguing plot, Graham’s novel should transfer into opera quite naturally. It is unfortunate then that the collaboration between composer Nico Muhly and librettist Nicholas Wright is a major misfire.

Sasha Cooke (Marnie) and dancers © Richard Hubert Smith
Sasha Cooke (Marnie) and dancers
© Richard Hubert Smith

Original ideas such as the fragments of Marnie’s psyche manifesting themselves on stage as phantasms of the character – Shadow Marnies or ‘Marnettes’ as they are apparently known within the production – work up to a point and make for interesting stage action, but the piece is let down by fundamentally vapid orchestral writing and a near total lack of dramatic tension, making some scenes, particularly the last, almost interminably dull. Where one longs for dynamism and orchestral flair, one finds only insipidity; Muhly’s Glass-inspired writing, beautiful in the right setting, is not at ease with his subject.

There are exceptions. The final scene of Act 1 finds an element of musical suspense and dramatic force, while the daily minutiae of office life at Crombie & Strutt at the start of the opera are perceptively and skilfully evoked and, throughout, one or two sparks of interest are kindled by Muhly’s writing for the woodwind and the chorus. Michael Mayer’s production is solid; large rectangular blocks, on which are projected various lights and pictures, are configured and reconfigured, the shifting landscape in keeping with the plot, while responsibility for bringing a sense of period is given to Arianne Phillips’ 1950s costumes and a hefty array of office stationery. Stage direction is lively and realistic, with memorably constructed scenes such as the segue from the offices of Halcyon Printing to the bar when desks vanish and a bar is smoothly formed on stage, the chorus jostling and jesting under the warm yellow light. The biggest flaw is in Mayer’s deployment of a troupe of male dancers in sharp suits and hats, contorting and writhing in risible symbolism.

Sasha Cooke (Marnie) © Richard Hubert Smith
Sasha Cooke (Marnie)
© Richard Hubert Smith

The opera is saved by strong performances across the board; Sasha Cooke valiantly threw her even-ranged and textured mezzo-soprano at the title role, and there was a clear sense of vocal and physical commitment to the role. An ability to imbue her voice with colour at key moments brought some life to the character, but was not enough to divest the role of its two-dimensional quality. Mark Rutland was given a degree of emotional depth by Daniel Okulitch, his bass-baritone lyrical and unforced. Muhly incites fraternal conflict by turning Terry into Mark’s playboy brother, seedy and resentful of his lesser status in the firm. He’s possibly the most interesting character in the opera, convincingly sung by countertenor James Laing, whose pale tones glowed white with passion at a critical moment in the opera.

Sasha Cooke (Marnie) and Daniel Okulitch (Mark Rutland) © Richard Hubert Smith
Sasha Cooke (Marnie) and Daniel Okulitch (Mark Rutland)
© Richard Hubert Smith

ENO favourite Lesley Garrett brought sharp authority to the emasculating elder Mrs Rutland, chilly and insincere in tone with a lethal glare. Kathleen Wilkinson, as Marnie’s mother, made more of an impression physically than vocally, an immobile, drawn figure full of poison, while Alasdair Elliott left a nasty taste of cheap oil in the mouth as Mr Strutt. There was a fine showing from the ENO Chorus who have demonstrated their versatility this season, and Martyn Brabbins, one of the great conductors of contemporary music, did what he could with the score. It is to be lamented, though, that an opera with such gripping and psychologically complex source material fails to achieve anything that makes the pulse race.