Last night, the Metropolitan Opera staged the premiere of The Hours, by Kevin Puts, an American composer born in 1972. The evening had the air of an occasion, a Major Event. The house was packed, and enthusiastic. Le tout-New York was there, or at least all of operatic New York. The Hours had been advertised on posters around the city for months. The cast was very, very starry.
And the opera proved, at a minimum, an interesting and worthy work, well worth hearing once, and more than once. Does that sound like faint praise? Remember: I said “at a minimum,” and that is an impressive minimum.
The Hours is based on a novel by Michael Cunningham, from 1998. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize and the pen/Faulkner Award. In 2002, it was made into a movie, which received nine Academy Award nominations, including for Best Picture. And now it is an opera—whose libretto is fashioned by Greg Pierce, an American playwright.
What’s it about, The Hours? The story is complicated and interweaving. It involves three women, in particular, who live in different times and places. One is a historical figure: Virginia Woolf, whose setting is Richmond, England, in 1923. Laura Brown is in Los Angeles, in 1949. Clarissa Vaughan is in New York City, in 1999.
Most characters in this story—or many of them—are dissatisfied with their lots: trapped in unhappy situations, mentally distressed. How will they fill the hours, and how will they bear them?
About Kevin Puts’s score, I will record some generalities. It often has a feeling of minimalism. There are stretches in which a single note is repeated, serving as a motor. There is often a wash, shimmering. The music is full of “tinklies,” by which I mean notes, or sprays of notes, that tinkle.
Throughout his career, Puts has been a “tonal” composer, which can be a daring thing to be. The late Lee Hoiby used to say, “When I was young, I would feel the hot breath of the composition police on my neck whenever I wrote a major third.”
In The Hours, Puts varies the music to suit the different settings. For example, Los Angeles in 1949 has some mid-century American popular music. Suggestions of Lawrence Welk. I thought of Leonard Bernstein’s techniques in A Quiet Place, his 1983 opera.
Puts writes dizzying music to portray the confusion or distress of his characters. He also does a skillful job of integration, by which I mean this: there are times when different characters, plus chorus, sing about different things simultaneously. Their lines, or “tracks,” must be integrated, woven—which Puts does.
He also knows how to write a climax. That may seem a simple thing, but it is not necessarily an easy thing. In addition to being skillful, this score has a lot of heart.
Did the music—did the opera at large—hold my attention all night long? I cannot say that it did. I thought there were longueurs. But let me issue my usual caution: a great many things go on too long for me, and others’ mileage will vary.
The opera was splendidly conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the Met’s music director. He lavishes care and affection on a new work. He sells it, advocates it—is a very good friend of a composer. The Met’s orchestra played beautifully, with the woodwind solos outstanding and singer-like.
Probably no composer has ever enjoyed a more luxurious cast for his opera premiere than Kevin Puts did last night. Clarissa and Virginia were sung by two of the great opera singers, or classical singers, of our time: Renée Fleming and Joyce DiDonato. Laura was sung by one of the leading Broadway performers, who also holds her own on an opera stage: Kelli O’Hara.
Reviewing them, I will be brief. Fleming sang like Fleming—lush, sensitive, individual. DiDonato sang like DiDonato—solid, grounded. O’Hara was clear and unaffected. What a mature and poised singer she is.
Kyle Ketelsen, the American bass-baritone, took an important male role, that of Richard, Clarissa’s friend. His singing was handsome and gleaming, as usual.
There are many small roles in this opera, some of which were taken by well-known singers: Denyce Graves, William Burden, Kathleen Kim (who took two roles, actually). The cast includes child singers, which is often an iffy proposition. The children sang and acted without a hitch last night. A boy named Kai Edgar was cool as a cucumber, a budding professional.
A complicated opera needs an especially smart production, and The Hours has one, overseen by Phelim McDermott, the English director. What could be a mess, McDermott keeps comprehensible, and pleasing to the eye.
Will this opera last? That is impossible to say. Some works have a splashy premiere then die on the vine. Some works have a nothing premiere and then go on and on. What I can say, for sure, is that Kevin Puts’s opera is an accomplishment, and that it earned the ovations it received on an excited, “buzzy” night at the Met.