The Hours Before

Renée Fleming

Today the Philadelphia Orchestra is unveiling the world premiere of the Kevin Puts opera The Hours, based upon the novel and movie of the same name. OK, actually the world premiere was on Friday evening, but today’s performance is the second. So there.

I greatly enjoyed the Kevin Puts opera Silent Night, when the Opera Company Philadelphia mounted it a few years back; it was one of the truly great theatrical performances that I’ve experienced. Most operas rise or fall on their music, and the theatrical experience requires a healthy suspension of disbelief, even more so than in an American musical. But Silent Night, which also was based upon a film, Joyeux Noël, about the Christmas truces during The Great War, was so brilliantly staged, that all the elements worked together in a way I’ve seldom seen in an opera house. Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever seen such magic in an opera house before.

So the name Kevin Puts certainly has me champing at the bit for his latest effort.

But that’s not all that has me looking forward to the event. The cast includes one of my favorite sopranos, Renée Fleming, as well as Kelli O’Hara, who apparently is just as at home on a Broadway stage as an opera stage. And with Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting, there is a lot to look forward to. (The opera will shortly be mounted by the Metropolitan Opera House, I believe with the same cast, and of course, with Yannick conducting.)

Kevin PutsAnd lest I forget, although Kevin Puts wrote the music, the libretto is by Greg Pierce. There is nearly as much craft involved in libretto writing as there is in music.  Few can do it well.

I’ve attended Philadelphia Orchestra performances of operas previously, and they generally don’t do just a simple concert rendition with the singers standing around reading from their scores; they actually stage them, usually very well. I fondly recall a Salome where a platform was built above the orchestra’s stage to allow the main action to occur there, while Jochanaan’s cistern was on the stage level; this brilliantly allowed Jochanaan to remain in full view of the audience for the whole opera and there was no need for him to sing off stage or with amplification. Of course, it did make for some rather gory viewing during the decapitation scene… 

(Just kidding.)

The Hours was not a film or book that I was familiar with, so I took a look at it yesterday. The story mainly revolves around three women during the course of a single day but in three different time periods and locations: New York City in 1999,  Richmond, England, in 1923, and Los Angeles in 1949. And the action involves the book Mrs. Dalloway, which Virginia Woolf is writing in 1923, and which Laura is reading in 1949, and Clarissa in 1999 is dealing the aftereffects of those previous actions. (The years are slightly different in the movie and opera.) There are lots of parallels among the three women, and there is also a theme that Laura and Virginia are oppressed because of the times they live in and aren’t able to truly be themselves, whereas Clarissa in 1999 is able to live an openly gay lifestyle.

In the program notes, Kevin Puts offers this explanation for his selection of subject matter for his opera:

Why The Hours? In May 2017, I was in the midst of crafting a libretto for The Brightness of Light, a multi-media work for Renée Fleming and Rod Gilfry based on the letters of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz. I had also been at work on a chamber opera called Elizabeth Cree, set to premiere at Opera Philadelphia that September and had begun to think about working on another grand opera.

I asked Ms. Fleming about her interest in developing something together. She was receptive to the idea, and on the phone, she
casually mentioned a recent lunch with actor Julianne Moore, for whom she had provided the singing voice for the film adaptation of Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. She said, “You know what would be wonderful is something that takes place in different time periods all at once, like The Hours.” (Ms. Moore plays Laura Brown in the film adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize–winning book.)

This set my mind awhirl with musical possibilities—duets and trios crossing time and space, a rich sound world of orchestral and choral textures magnifying emotion on a grand scale—with the radiant Ms. Fleming as Clarissa Vaughn, who believes hosting the perfect party can save her beloved Richard from dying of AIDS.

I’ll bring a full report.

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