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‘Marnie’ is all too insubstantial at Met Opera premiere

On the couch: Isabel Leonard, seated, undergoes therapy in the title role of Nico Muhly's “Marnie” with, from left, Dísella Lárusdóttir, Peabody Southwell, Deanna Breiwick and Rebecca Ringle Kamarei as four “shadow Marnies,” embodying the many different personas she adopts for the world. (Ken Howard/Met Opera)

People’s brains sometimes shut off when it comes to opera. Dazzled by the idea that it’s exalted and over the top and outside the rules, and by all the talent that comes together to get something on the stage, some people seem simply to abandon common sense.

One demonstration of this is the fact that “Marnie,” the new operatic adaptation of the novel that inspired Alfred Hitchcock’s 1964 film, ran at English National Opera last year before coming to the Metropolitan Opera on Friday night without anybody intervening or pulling the plug. On Friday, I had the sensation of my brain shutting down when confronted with the result.

“Marnie,” with music by Nico Muhly and a libretto by Nicholas Wright, represents a colossal waste of talent and opportunity. Having a new work open at the Met is cause for huge excitement, and the audience was filled with musical luminaries, including acclaimed opera composers such as Philip Glass and John Corigliano, each of whom has had one opera premiered at the Met (this was Muhly’s second Met co-commission).

The Met also spared no expense. The production, colorful and filled with projections, was by Julian Crouch and 59 Productions, which had a striking debut here with Glass’s “Satyagraha” in 2008, and have done several other pieces, including Muhly’s “Two Boys,” since.

And the cast was filled with talent, from the strong baritone Christopher Maltman and the incisive countertenor Iestyn Davies as the brothers Mark and Terry, through Anthony Dean Griffey as Marnie’s first boss, Mr. Strutt, and Denyce Graves in a vividly sung, slightly over-the-top turn as Marnie’s mother. Newcomer Will Liverman, a fine baritone, made his company debut in a too-small role of Malcolm Fleet. And conductor Robert Spano, an experienced hand with new scores, made an overdue company debut, conducting with more assurance than the score seemed to warrant.

With all of the talent and goodwill in the house, it was deeply disappointing that “Marnie” was so unworthy. A significant problem was Wright’s libretto, which didn’t come close to Hitchcock’s adaptation in terms of making something dramatically viable out of Winston Graham’s 1961 book.

Laboring to be poetic, it was merely sophomoric, troweling on cliche with such abandon that I found myself wondering if the libretto was deliberately trying to evoke the banality of Marnie’s world. (“When you’re having a drink with friends in a bar, are you the same as you are with your old head teacher?” she sings at one point. At another, she describes her beloved horse Forio as “a vast immensity, wet from the rain” whose “eyes were deep and dark as wells.”)

The choruses, although musically promising, served largely either to provide obvious local color (workers gathering in a bar after work to order drinks) or sermonize (a set piece about the agonies of a guilty person lying awake at night).

In a few places, the purple language actually did take a poetic turn. In one passage, Davies’s Terry described the feeling of early morning after a long night of partying and what it’s like to make love at that bright and fuzzy hour. But this was a rare exception. Counterbalancing it was the fact that Terry also had to sing “I’ll see you torn apart by the hounds of truth” at the end of the fox-hunting scene that is the piece’s denouement.

Muhly is a deeply gifted composer who has yet fully to display those gifts in the two operas of his I’ve seen, and “Marnie” made me wonder if he is perhaps too willing a collaborator, too ready to relinquish strong ideas in the effort to work well with others. His score, to my ear, was the sound of someone holding back: creating moods and anticipation and setups, with slashing piccolos scattering ornaments and lightning bolts while the lower instruments piled up grumbling clouds of suspense, without ever actually taking hold and delivering something — beyond flickers of surging sugary emotion at a few moments.

“Marnie” is about a woman who is not who she seems — to the people around her, taken in by her compulsive lies and constant self-reinventions, and to herself. The whole opera spells this out so clearly that it robs itself of its own suspense; every surprise in it has already been revealed along the way.

Isabel Leonard, in the title role, offers a movie-star appearance and a perfectly capable voice, but the same obedient, willing spirit of collaboration that keeps her from creating a heroine who gives you much reason to care about her, surrounded by four look-alike “shadow Marnies” (Deanna Breiwick, Dísella Lárusdóttir, Rebecca Ringle Kamarei and Peabody Southwell) who offer a chorus of her thoughts. She fit the profile of this docile, earnest opera, which strove so mightily and so dully to fit some kind of perceived mold but sadly proved as insubstantial as its heroine.

Marnie has six more performances at the Metropolitan Opera through Nov. 10.