Nico Muhly’s opera Marnie, on stage at the Metropolitan Opera, should have been a success. The story of a sexually repressed, guilt-ridden kleptomaniacal woman who is blackmailed into marriage by a powerful man who later attempts to rape her is a more-than-possible variation on what we have been seeing in the newspapers. Perhaps her abuse as a child is the only truth she tells: she is a liar, affects other personalities and steals. We watch as she goes through (much needed) psychoanalysis. She lies to herself. Could the opera be unsuccessful because the title character is impossible to pin down? I think not, and any opera lover who has been riveted by Debussy's Mélisande will agree. Mélisande's fragility is dangerous: “Do you ever close your eyes?” she is asked. “Yes, at night.” The answer gives us the facts but it doesn’t answer the question asked. The meaning is skirted. She’s first seen crying, to whispers in the orchestra. Why? She won’t say. She says she has been hurt but won’t elaborate. She is elusive but riveting. She is terrified.

Isabel Leonard (Marnie) and Iestyn Davies (Terry) © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Isabel Leonard (Marnie) and Iestyn Davies (Terry)
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

With Marnie, on the other hand, we see what’s wrong. She steals, she keeps changing her appearance and name. We meet her abusive mother who, we discover near the opera’s end, is the root of Marnie’s craziness. An attempted rape is presented almost matter-of-factly: the attempted suicide which immediately follows is accompanied by a crash and a smear of red. Melodies never take wing, perhaps for fear that we’ll figure Marnie out. The words keep coming, but the instruments don’t help define the ambiguities or bring us closer to the drama. For a plot in which this much happens, the evening falls flat dramatically. It’s a bit like watching a re-run of a Law & Order episode, which incidentally, is much the same reaction one had from Muhly’s Two Boys, seen at the Met five years ago.

The cast, sets, costumes and direction are the evening’s stars. Julian Crouch and 59 Productions, who were also responsible for the wonderful production of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha ten years ago, score another success: sliding panels on which either site-specific or mood-specific images are projected set scenes brilliantly and colorfully. So do Arianne Phillips' costumes – late-50s business attire for the men, late ‘50s incredibly chic and brightly colored for Marnie and the four Shadow Marnies who, dressed just like her, mirror her thoughts. There is a marvelous foxhunting scene in the second act for solos and chorus which is both visually and dramatically stunning, and fascinating musically: it is the longest form piece in the opera, in contrast with tiny Ariosos, melodies that evaporate as they touch the ground and scratches and bumps.

Christopher Maltman (Mark Rutland) and Isabel Leonard (Marnie) © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Christopher Maltman (Mark Rutland) and Isabel Leonard (Marnie)
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

Robert Spano led the evening with whatever forward surge Muhly allows – the second act more cogent than the first. The orchestral colors were, I suspect, ideally realized. Spano did what he could, but he couldn’t rescue the opera. The gifted cast could not have been bettered. Anthony Dean Griffey, as Marnie’s nasty first boss, Strutt, was properly bullying. Christopher Maltman was superb as Mark Rutland, who catches Marnie stealing from his company and blackmails her into marrying him: he even managed to be sympathetic. Countertenor Iestyn Davies sang Mark’s weak brother Terry, who also lusts after Marnie, with wicked ineffectiveness and sharp tone. Mezzo Denyce Graves, back at the Met after several years, sang Marnie’s mother with low-down, low-class urgency.

Isabel Leonard (Marnie) and the Shadow Marnies © Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera
Isabel Leonard (Marnie) and the Shadow Marnies
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera

And Isabel Leonard, as glorious to look at as listen to, was a shining Marnie. It really isn’t her fault that her music, and therefore her interior character, unfolds too placidly. Where’s the frisson as we see her steal for the first time? Her sexual standoffishness was acted with prim posture and abrupt movements, but where is it in the music? Her paean to her horse, Forio, came across as banal. Insights sputtered and disappeared. But what a voice – a rich, bright mezzo, expressive at every turn.

I don’t mean to imply that the evening was a failure. Everything fell into place and the audience was left somewhat satisfied. But one wonders – does it take a Debussy to rivet one’s attention to an ambiguous character while creating an opera that is, in fact, not dramatically ambiguous? Marnie herself has no musical profile, and that is a very big problem.