The cheering crowd simply wouldn’t leave. Even after the clearly happy artists had emptied the stage and the house lights went on, the applause continued. Philadelphia audiences—accustomed to being treated as an appendage to the New York cognoscenti who really count—knew that this was An Important Moment… and we weren’t going to let it go.
Our Music Director Yannick Nezet-Seguin (who also, by the way, serves that function also at a theater one hundred miles to the north) pulled off the brilliant idea to use this orchestra along with guest soloists to preview a newly commissioned opera by composer Kevin Puts and librettist Greg Pierce. That work, an adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s acclaimed 1998 novel, The Hours, would thereby get a practice run in concert form, before its staged debut on November 22 at… oh, all right: the Met.
So yes: there was an unmistakable element of local boosterism here. But that’s not all it was.
Puts’ and Pierce’s The Hours is in many ways a hugely impressive achievement. If you simply allow the work to sweep over you, it’s ravishingly beautiful, serious yet accessible. The diaphanous, ever-swirling musical textures familiar from the composer’s earlier opera, Silent Night, are if anything even more evident here.
Rarer among contemporary opera composers is Puts’ gift for graceful vocal writing. Like many new works, the structure here emphasizes elongated narratives over break-out numbers, but the singers still feel primary, and very well-served. Only time will tell, but I can imagine some passages—particularly one for the character of Laura Brown early in Act II, and another for all three principal women—excerpted and performed in different contexts.
In other words, musically speaking, The Hours looks to be a smashing success. As to whether it gets to the heart of Cunningham’s book—or works as storytelling on its own terms—that’s a more complicated question.
For those unfamiliar with the The Hours, I will foolhardily attempt a quick synopsis. The novel is made up of three separate narratives, focused on three women in different places and historical contexts, but thematically related.
In England in 1923, novelist Virginia Woolf struggles with her own mental illness as she works on her magnum opus, Mrs. Dalloway. In Southern California in 1949, wife and mother Laura Brown reads that now-published novel to comfort herself: most of the time, she feels lost. And in New York in the late 1990s, Clarissa Vaughan—a wealthy editor with the sort of life that’s a PBS wet dream—prepares a party for her novelist friend Richard, who has just won a major literary prize, but is dying of AIDS.
Ms. Vaughan’s day closely replicates the action (not really the right word) of Mrs. Dalloway: the women share the same first name of Clarissa, and both begin their errands by buying flowers, which famously is the first line of Woolf’s novel. In fact, all three plot strands in The Hours follow a day in the life of each of these women. More deeply, all three are connected through a theme of suicide. Cunningham’s novel could as accurately be titled To Be, Or Not To Be.
Even from my crude summary, I hope you picked up that this is a book of small, quiet details. Despite the epochal structure and dire central theme, Cunningham’s work is elegantly understated. Even big things happen in a way that might require multiple readings to really get the sense of what just occurred. Far more significant here are the minor moments that make up a life. Again, Hamlet comes to mind: the language here is largely interior ruminations. Musically speaking, I would call Cunningham’s novel a chamber work.
That is not at all Puts’ approach. Part of what made this premiere so exciting was hearing the full forces of this orchestra in dazzlingly virtuosic form; a chorus is also employed (here the fine Philadelphia Symphonic Choir, under the direction of Joe Miller) who similarly perform with awesome grandeur.
It’s thrilling music on its own—but it’s tonally at odds with the story. One moment actually made me giggle: when Laura Brown dejectedly throws away a cake she’s baked and decorated that turned out poorly (see what I mean about details?), the orchestral writing brings in what sounds like pounding war drums. (I mean, I think cake is a big deal, too—but really?)
To the credit of both the writing and the superb solo performances across the board, the individual characters still register powerfully. But something key in the novel is lost in translation.
The book has, of course, been translated before: in director Stephen Daldry’s acclaimed 2002 film adaptation. It’s revealing to compare this with the opera. Though Daldry and screenwriter David Hare necessarily compress some of the narrative, the movie is in most ways quite amazingly faithful to Cunningham’s structure and tone. The sense of incidents is quiet, sublimated to the emotional reactions to them which are often deliberately opaque.
The film has its own very celebrated musical score by Philip Glass, who to my mind is at his best here: his undulating, hypnotic but low-key style is perfect. Puts’ language is also in constant, shimmering movement—but to me it feels too large. I wonder how much the challenge of filling the Met is at play here?
A quick sidebar. Puts and Glass similarly choose largely to ignore what might have been an obvious musical way into the novel: to delineate the historical shifts with stylistically different music. Glass’s score never does it—and after a short passage introducing Laura with some big-band jazz undertones—neither does Puts. In both cases, I think it’s the right choice.
For librettist Greg Pierce, it’s a different kind of problem. If a film script needs to significantly abridge a novel, a libretto has even fewer words to work with. One way Pierce does it is to overlap some of the three stories, which I think is a mistake. (Cunningham keeps them separate for a reason, merging them only in a final coup de theatre.) I also think the last moment in the opera, which brings together Laura, Virginia, and Clarissa in a trio expressing what they’ve learned, is lovely, but a false and over-sentimentalizing note.
In preparation for the concert this week, I watched the movie again and also listened to the novel through an audiobook—both of which allowed me to follow the story, mentally plugging in details that weren’t otherwise clear. But I’m not sure how easy it would be to figure all this out if you came to this opera without that knowledge. I should of course also say that this was a concert performance; staging should help immeasurably.
Ah yes—back to the concert. In terms of the performance here, the news was overwhelmingly positive. To a person, the large cast—18 soloists, if I count correctly—were superb.
The character of Clarissa is a perfect fit for Renée Fleming. Her voice has diminished a bit in size (occasionally swamped here in the lower register), but the quality—in particular, those miraculously airy high notes—remains astonishingly untouched by time, and she brought welcome dignity and restraint. Kelli O’Hara (as Laura Brown) was perhaps the biggest news—her luminous soprano, more beautiful than ever, in full sail; her emotional reserves equally powerful. I don’t think anyone hearing this concert—mostly unamplified, by the way—would imagine for a moment that she’s not first and foremost an opera singer.
Fleming and O’Hara will recreate these roles at the Met, where Woolf will be played by Joyce DiDonato. Here, that role was taken by Jennifer Johnson Cano, whose warm mezzo was a joy on its own, equaled by her potent, charismatic acting. I do hope she has an opportunity to do this on stage.
In the male roles, baritone Brett Polegato (as Richard, the doomed novelist) was marvelous both dramatically and vocally; as were (in smaller parts) tenors Jamez McCorkle, William Burden, and Richard Troxell, and bass-baritone Brandon Cedel.
Able support was also provided by Deborah Nansteel, Sylvia D’Eramo, Raven McMillon, Chelsea Laggan, and a group of gifted young singer/actors: Jonah Serotta, Thomas FitzGerald, Elliet Brown, Devan Truax, Sarah Shoff, and Sydney Parson.
Special mention should be made of countertenor Chuanyuan Liu, who performed solos from the choir loft with an unearthly beauty that made the most of every moment.
And there you have it. I look at the evening a bit like Laura’s cake. Dramaturgically, it’s a mixed bag: I wouldn’t discard it, but I would want to fix it. But simply as an evening of gorgeous music and singing, it’s cordon bleu.