Nico Muhly’s new opera Marnie has been dividing critics and audiences alike

Dishonesty, theft and child abuse prove too much for some critics and viewers of this new English National Opera production. Make up your own mind...

I’ve always disliked the term ‘music criticism’. It sounds so unfriendly, unhelpful, and, frankly, a teeny bit pompous. ‘Reviewer’ at least suggests a more reflective approach. Of course, this doesn’t mean that any appraisal of art, such as classical music, should be fluffy – far from it. Arts commentary deserves to be rigorous, considered and informed. Naturally, reviews can be all these things and still come out with diametrically opposing views. This is often the case with new works, particularly major long-term projects, where anticipation tends to breed media hype. A case in point is the English National Opera’s recent premiere of 36-year-old composer Nico Muhly’s opera Marnie, commissioned by New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Even before the work’s run at the London Coliseum, it felt like some writers were already scribbling their critique of the performance.

Based on Winston Graham’s novel (1961), the opera’s main protagonist is a compulsive liar who manipulates, steals and repeatedly takes on new identities. But, as we discover, Marnie is also the victim of terrible childhood abuse. It’s only when this pain is finally laid bare, and our heroine is in handcuffs, that she announces she feels free. Muhly’s intelligent, unsettling score – combined with stand-out solo performances from mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke in the title role and bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch as Mark, Marnie’s husband – make this an intoxicating production (the work was broadcast on Radio 3).

The people sat to my left did not return for the second act, while the audience member to my right was moved to tears…

However, the experts were divided. Unusually, reviews ran the full gamut, from two stars (The Daily Telegraph, Evening Standard) to three (The Guardian and Independent), then four and five (Financial Times and The Stage, respectively). Similarly, the people sat to my left were unimpressed with the first act and did not return for the second, while the audience member to my right was moved to tears, attending for the second time. It is fascinating that one work can provoke such a variety of emotions – it will be interesting to compare the UK response with that of overseas audiences when the work receives its New York premiere next season.

New Year, new resolutions

Instead of those lacklustre promises that you will lose five pounds, use your gym membership and consume less alcohol/caffeine/sugar/salt etc, how about expanding your listening – and, for the musically active, playing – lists? Enter Year of Wonder: Classical Music for Every Day, a newly published compendium of 366 pieces by 240 composers – one for each day of the year – penned by Radio 3 presenter Clemency Burton-Hill. Unlike historical guides and surveys, this is a personal and therefore eclectic mix of works, and an ideal place for newcomers to classical music. Brighten up your commute or other daily mundane activity with a mind and heart-expanding resolution to discover more classical music. Come on in, the water’s fine…