Opera: Kevin Puts / The Hours

The Metropolitan Opera (2022)
Composed by Kevin Puts
Libretto by Greg Pierce

Renée Fleming (Clarissa), Joyce DiDonato (Virginia Woolf), Kelli O’Hara (Laura), Kyle Ketelsen (Richard), Denyce Graves (Sally), Kai Edgar (Richie), Sean Panikkar (Leonard Woolf), Brandon Cedel (Dan), William Burden (Louis), Tony Stevenson (Walter), Kathleen Kim (Barbara), Yannick Nézet-Séguin (Conductor).

As a big fan of Kevin Puts’ symphonic works I was looking forward to seeing this presentation from The Met of his 2022 opera, The Hours. The compositional mind of Puts can’t fail to please, so I’m happy to see me some streaming opera while not risking subjugation to some modern barbarian of a composer laying out rope after rope of barbed wire tone rows which will make a ruin of my patience and nervous system.

The story behind The Hours is built off of the 2002 film of the same name. Not enough space here to get into the intricately woven plot so check it here. IMO to get full enjoyment out of this opera it really helps if you have a fetish for literary conceits of scenarists who obsess about books and the lives of their authors – in this case, Virginia Woolf. A relevant contemporary drama of AIDS and its victims is set upon this foundation, and it is this aspect that is the most powerful and needs no illumination by Greek choruses or insider trading of 20th Century lit.

As the presentation began I saw conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin make his way to the pit wearing some stupid D&G floral shirt. This clownish getup did not impress. He looked like one of those NYC music biz types who overdress in designer togs trying to look hip at the Adele record release bash. If I was the director of The Metropolitan Opera I would have sent him home to get properly dressed for the dignified occasion of conducting a metro opera company that does a quarter billion dollars a year in revenue.

In the opening scene I find that Puts’ vocal writing is as anticipated – smooth full of light without ever being cloying or predictable. Puts is an unapologetic tonalist and let’s face it, he has the rep and success track to be as consonant as he wants to be without getting unfairly burned by the classical music cognoscenti for being a lightweight. So we’re all the richer for that.

The chorus occasionally acts as narrator to nudge the audience into awareness of the scene changes. Clumsy. If you have to have the chorus warble things like “It is Los Angeles 1949” and beat the point home by projecting the words onto a wall in artsy supertitles, the librettist is doing something wrong. I think for an opera to succeed it needs to be understood with immediacy in one sitting without intellectual treatises or supertitles (or 40 women in costume warbling narration) to try and explain it all.

The Virginia Woolf sequences I found a little dull, but the duet between Joyce DiDonato (Virginia) and Kelli O’ Hara (Laura) when they are simultaneously reading from the same Mrs. Dalloway book, triggering the scene transition from 1922 to 1949 is an inspired touch, and their extended duet is a pretty thing.

Renee Fleming‘s aria Here on This Corner is another standout moment among the action and nicely sets up her entrance into the tragic scene in Richard’s apartment.

The duets Does it Matter Then and The End between Virginia and Laura that kicks off Act II are wonderfully composed (to my ears a contempo update of a Puccini-esque dramatic interlude) and the staging of this scene between two characters who are connected by suicidal efforts over 20 years is quite affecting. Ditto for the flashback scene between Clarissa, Richard and Louis where Puts outdoes himself in evoking old longing and what-might-have-been.

This is The Hours as put on by The Met, from the composer who gave us the operas Silent Night and Elizabeth Cree. Based on a story that is precious and confusing but not static. I liked the goofy preponderance of flowers in Act I and the precision duets and trios in Act II. The lurking chorus was a constant distraction and I could have done without them (sorry AGMA). Scene transitions with various divas overlapping their vocals are clever and innovative. 

In The Hours Kevin Puts and Greg Pierce have gifted us a musical property that is ravishing throughout, and after viewing it I now have Puts’ first operatic effort, Silent Night, in my crosshairs for a future review (if I can run down a streaming version of it somewhere in the universe).