The Hours: A New Spin on Just How Good American Opera Can Be
For those of us who go often to the opera, we long ago learned that an evening at the Met brings much joy in the pure art of singing. Indeed, nowadays, here at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, a serious effort is being made to ensure that we are supporting new and modern operas, rather than just relying on well-established classics from the past.
Why the emphasis on the new and, yes, sometimes untried works? I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer, but from what I’ve read and heard, a big part of the Met management’s reasoning has to do with ensuring that the company’s modern opera programs are as well-done for new and younger audiences as earlier works were done. Recently we’ve been offered such exciting works as Philip Glass’s Akhnaten from a couple of years ago, Matthew Aucoin’s Eurydice, Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones (and soon his up-coming Champion), Brett Dean’s Hamlet, and an up-dated and very modern spin on Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor.
In each of these, much effort has gone into ensuring that the design, staging, and production values live up to the standards of those classic works still being so well performed for New York’s audiences. And, at the same time, with serious and extremely well-performed attention to their built-in musical values.
Now the Met has brought us The Hours, by Kevin Puts, whose Silent Night – his first opera – was awarded the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Music. Greg Pierce is the librettist. Both the history and the synopsis of the opera are a bit complicated but the result is extremely rewarding. With respect to the work’s history, it was based, somewhat loosely, on Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, and The Hours was a successful (and also Pulitzer Prize-winning) novel from Michael Cunningham in 1998. The novel, adapted into an Academy Award-winning film in 2002, makes gripping reading and many people I know (including myself) couldn’t get by with only one reading. For me I read the book once before I heard the opera and of course I had to go back to it after I had experienced the opera.
And the Met got us ready for this opera. I started hearing about it last season, and by the time we got to the opening of the company’s season in late September, I – like many other people – knew quite a bit about what was coming. There were many programs (one with the Guggenheim Museum’s discussion series and one of the company’s own “Met Talks,” which are provided before each new production). Advertisements were everywhere, especially with the nearly iconic photograph of the three leading ladies (shown here). By the time we got to the actual performances – the first on November 22, two nights before our American Thanksgiving holiday – the Met and its audiences were ready.
As for a synopsis of the opera, the Met’s printed program takes a direct approach for The Hours: “The opera takes place in a single day. Virginia Woolf is in Richmond, England, in 1923. Laura Brown is in Los Angeles in 1949. Clarissa Vaughan is in New York City at the end of the 20th century.”
The opera’s “theme,” if there can be only one, is set in the book Virginia Woolf is writing, Mrs. Dalloway. In Cunningham’s novel, he quickly puts forward the beauty in which everything is taking place, quoting frequently a phrase or a longer variation of the phrase, in italics, describing the atmosphere of the day: Life; London; this moment of June. He lets us know that it is a beautiful day, and yet the three women, dealing with one or another version of some kind of painful dissatisfaction, will not be able to enjoy the beauty of the day that surrounds them. And except for Clarissa Vaughan, the “modern” of the three women, each of them has a drastic way of dealing with her unhappiness. All of them are (or seem to be) locked into a sad and troubling way of looking at life, with our response to it not resolved until we get to the end of the opera.
Phelim McDermott, credited with the production of The Hours (as he was with Akhnaten and several other productions at the Met), notes that opera is the best art form for bringing together the different elements of other forms (such as a novel, a play, or a film). Opera, he adds, provides the opportunity for a subtle merging of many points of connection.
Indeed, as McDermott so eloquently made the point, in The Hours, “three stories have to weave themselves throughout the opera and then join together at the end of the piece … like a moving collage.” He points out, of course, that much must necessarily be left out of the original versions, but the “bringing together” (we might call it) of different story parts can be managed more easily when what is being put together is being done for an opera, thanks to the use of all the singers, the chorus, the orchestra, and everything else that goes into building the bigger picture.
And what of that “joining together at the end of the piece”? In The Hours it is done so well, so simply and so beautifully, it’s hard to believe. Indeed, this final trio has been compared to the final trio in Der Rosenkavalier – which Kobbe describes as “an early example of Strauss’s luxuriant writing for combined female voices, always a feature of his scores and here at its finest and most effective.”
Can the two be compared? I’m no expert, but for me, hearing Renée Fleming, Kelli O’Hara, and Joyce DiDonato sing these lines, I don’t think anyone can help – remembering what they now know about the three women – but be moved to tears, as one is in Rosenkavalier. Certainly I can state that the trio Puts and Pierce give to the three women to sing (“This is the world and you live in it, and you try to be … You try …”) are every bit as emotional as what we experience in the finale of my favorite of all the Strauss operas.
The performance we attended was the third of the Met’s eight performances, and we found the cast and all participants in top form (especially the orchestra, huge in size and playing as well as we’ve ever heard them play). The house – it seemed to me – was nearly sold out, and the audience’s enthusiasm matched that of the people involved in the on-going preliminary conversations before the opera opened (and notably the much-commented on enthusiasm of Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the Met’s Music Director, who conducted).
Further performances are scheduled for December 7, 10, and 15, with this Saturday’s (December 10) performance being broadcast on the Toll Brothers–Metropolitan Opera International Radio Network at 1pm EST. This performance will also be the first of the season’s Live in HD performances in select cinemas, with an encore Live in HD performance of The Hours on December 14. Sometime after that date, I assume The Hours will be available through The Met on Demand, the company’s streaming service. I’m looking forward to having it available there, for I fully expect to see The Hours again and possibly, in a couple of years, back in the opera house.