There is a certain durability about the narrative Marnie. The book, which was written by Winston Graham, was first published 60 years ago, in 1961. A Hitchcock movie followed in 1964, then later a stage production and two separate radio plays, and recently a Nico Muhly opera – a 2017 English National Opera production and a 2018 American Metropolitan Opera production.
The story is focused on a woman, a troubled woman, who engages in the life of a criminal. Marnie, Margaret Edgar, is a thief and a compulsive liar in the late 1950s, in England. Her modus operandi is to secure employment at a business, works for the business for a few months, and then robs the firm of its cash payroll. Upon disappearing, she moves town, changes her appearance and identity, and then targets a new firm in a new town.
Her criminality is halted when she is caught by the owner of a company while still in its employ. The owner, Mark Rutland, in lieu of reporting her to the police, coerces Marnie into marrying him. Marnie evolves from roving criminal predator to trapped martial prey as she has to endure psychological control and sexual abuse by her new husband Mark Rutland. She eventually attempts suicide and this prompts her husband to behaves more compassionately towards her; he encourages her to see a psychologist. Over time, Marnie discovers devastating facts about her childhood, and her mother, which help to explain her current attitudes and behaviors.
The author of the book, Marnie, was an accomplished British novelist who is most famously known for his Poldark book series. His novel Marnie is darkly visceral as a first-person chronicle. The reader is addictively exposed to every thought, instinct, and feeling of the central female protagonist.
Obviously, many cinematic productions tend to be a reduction of any literary work: nevertheless, the Hitchcock film, although slightly less dark and menacing than the novel, brilliantly conveys Marnie’s mental states through visuals, the camera work, and an evocative music soundtrack – the color red figures prominently in the film; actress Tippi Hedren and actor Sean Connery are the main leads in the film; the movie is set in the United States instead of England; Tippi Hedren is tragically complex as the lead.
Ironically, Tippi Hedren, the lead actress of two consecutive Hitchcock films (The Birds-1963 and Marnie-1964), experienced distress in the form of professional and personal harassment from Hitchcock during her tenure with the director; near the end of filming Marnie, the actress and the director only communicated through a third-party liaison.
Of course, an opera staging can also be reductive: Nico Muhly, composer, and Nicholas Wright, librettist, created the opera, Marnie, as an astonishing story with a captivating heroine; staging, vocalizations, costumes, and the live orchestra score are compelling .. all of these elements do convey the emotional turmoil within the lead character. A fascinating new element, in Marnie the opera, is the inclusion of four look-alike female characters – inner voices or shadow aspects – who hover about Marnie and who are only visible to her.
Isabel Leonard and Christopher Maltman are the lead singers/actors in the NY Met’s 2018 production; Isabel Leonard is riveting as the woman in trouble.