MET Opera House building–Lincoln Center/Monday November 28th, 2022.
Welcome back friends, and welcome this week, to the wonderful world of opera!
And this week, welcome to a contemporary, powerful, somber, intellectual, operatic work, blending during the course of 24 hours, the lives of 3 women, from 3 various eras, bonded by a visceral need for literature, whether writing, reading, or editing it.
Welcome to Kevin Puts (born 1972) and his 2022, dark and unique “The Hours”, with a libretto by Greg Pierce (born 1978).
This “Hours” opera is based first, on an illustrious 1998 novel, which won a Pulitzer prize for fiction, the following year, also entitled “The Hours”, by Michael Cunningham (born 1952), which pays a wonderful tribute to English modernist writer, the iconic Virginia Woolf (1882-1941,) and to her critically acclaimed 1925 novel “Mrs Dalloway”.
And second, this “Hours” opera is also based on the ensuing “The Hours” 2002 Paramount pictures film/movie adaptation.
And despite the bleak “Hours” plot that did not particularly move me (although I love the stream of consciousness storytelling style), as this “Hours” plot, is too somber for my taste, without enough “light” to really engage me, yet interestingly, this opera is set in 3 distinctive and fascinating 20th century times (1923, 1949, and 1999), and in beautiful and captivating places (the English countryside, and urban megapolis Los Angeles and New York).
Interestingly also, despite the lack of conventional arias, which made this “Hours” opera feel more like a wonderfully entertaining “musical”, or “sang” theater, than conventional opera, and after all, why not, what truly brilliant and subtle orchestral music by Puts, and what a great libretto by Pierce, both underlining perfectly, the 3 eras unique color scheme, vocabulary, or musical atmosphere, and finally, what wonderful singing, from top, glamorous and iconic star performers, considered all, the best at their craft:
Renée Fleming, Joyce Di Donato, Kelli O’Hara.
Wow! wow! wow!
Let’s listen to a Met Opera trailer for “The Hours”, look at the incredibly rich stage, and listen to the gorgeous and complex music including a fabulous chorus:
What incredible star wattage, rarely seen lately, and a true delight to start the holiday season!
In a nutshell, we discover during 24 hours, and in 2 acts, the arc of 3 intertwined lives from 3 different eras: 1923, 1949 and 1999, all wonderfully depicted, and at times, together on stage.
And the uniqueness of these various timelines is particularly well conveyed by the set props, and by the 3 women’s unique “dated” clothing.
And the action increases its intensity, when accompanied by wonderful dancers and chorus, to express with even stronger potency, the 3 women’s inner emotions or thoughts.
Wow! wow! wow!
Furthermore, we discover specifically, how the famed, early 20th century English classic novel, “Mrs Dalloway”, written in 1923 by Virginia Woolf, and published in 1925, affected the destinies of 2 American women, living a few decades later: first, Laura Brown, living in Los Angeles in 1949, and second, Clarissa Vaughan, living in 1999, in busy and animated New York City.
And Woolf’s “Mrs Dalloway”, in its plot, in short, describes a day’s “preparations” for a party Mrs D. will host later that evening, and the ensuing party, during which Mrs D. will, at one point, also find out, about a suicide from a shell-shocked World War I veteran.
And interestingly, because it has a consequence on the staging and production values choices by Phelim Mc Dermott for this Puts “Hours” opera, Woolf’s “Mrs Dalloway” is also written from an “interior”, “stream of consciousness” perspective (a new modernist literary style developed by Woolf), allowing for the story to travel forwards and backwards in time (as do often chorus and dancers on stage), and for the reader, to construct for oneself, an image of Mrs D.’s life.
And “Mrs Dalloway”‘s famous opening line interestingly also, opens up the Puts “Hours” opera, as we see both on stage, 1923 Virginia Woolf, “writing” it, and 1999 Clarissa Vaughan “living” and saying it, as she were Mrs Dalloway. We meet Laura Brown “reading” the novel, shortly after.
And here is the famed opening sentence:
“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself“.
And this opening line is important, as it represents the world that Woolf’s mother imagined for her daughter Virginia, as a grown-up, a world in which Virginia would have been living most probably, in a wealthy, conservative, social world, where Virginia would have had “staff” to look after her, and help, with many mundane chores.
Yet, I’m with Virginia or Clarissa, on the flowers, choosing them ourselves, for a party, is always fun, joyful and creative.
Yet, this wealthy, comfortable and conservative world, is precisely the one that that Woolf chose to leave behind her, as she grew up to adulthood, and chose instead for herself, the world of art, feminism, and to belong to the Bloomsbury avant-garde group (comprised of artists and economists, including in addition to herself, E. M. Forster, and Lytton Strachey, or John Maynard Keynes), and all united in this group, by an abiding belief in the importance of the arts, and a group which influenced 20th century ensuing literature, psychology, feminism, sexuality, pacifism, and economics.
How about that.
And so daring for the times.
And probably, not always a walk in the park.
In addition, a well-known quote, attributed to American poet, Dorothy Parker, which I was reminded of, came to me suddenly, as I admired the the wonderful, complex and often abstract production, yet bathed with a wonderful symbolic oneirism, translated through the ever present chorus and dance, and intricate geometric, and minimalist “ballets” beautifully choreographed by Annie-B Parson, reminiscent as well of famous 1920’s psychological theories, concerning the way people perceive the world around them, called the Gestalt principles:
“They lived in squares, painted in circles, and loved in triangles”.
And believe it or not, but this 1925 Woolf novel, “Mrs Dalloway”, had also, at the time of writing in 1923, a “working” title, which yes, you have guessed it right, was “The Hours”.
How about that?
Let’s now get back to our opera, but this context is important to comprehend fully, and enjoy even more this truly original and complex, “Hours” contemporary opera.
And interestingly, in Puts’ operatic “The Hours”, it seems to me, that the distinctive overall arching literary, cinematic, and operatic theme which pervades the plot, is that throughout the 20th century, all 3 women seem all, to be still suffering, from being “constrained” in their lives.
And this is true of Virginia Woolf, suffering in England’s early 1920’s, from hallucinations, and longing for the bustling city life of London, instead of being cooped up in the English countryside.
And it is equally true for Los Angeles residing Laura Brown, in 1949, a bored housewife, who seemed content in her life, mostly while reading, also a pill popping addict, and who eventually abandons entirely her family responsibilities, including her husband, and young son, Richie.
And finally, in 1999, this constraining “feeling” also rings true for Clarissa Vaughan, a successful, and lesbian middle aged editor, about to prepare, with her life partner Sally, as in “Mrs Dalloway”, her own party, later that evening, filled with writers, poets, and various artists, for a close friend of hers, a terminally ill poet, Richard, dying of AIDS (vs the PTSD, shell shocked state of the suicidal War World 1 character of the 1923 “Mrs Dalloway”), extremely depressed, and yet, about to be awarded a prize. And as the story unfolds, and Clarissa goes about her “chores”, as in the Mrs Dalloway original novel, we discover Clarissa starting to wonder about her romantic choices in life, as she goes about her various party preparations, buys her flowers herself downtown, probably near the flower district, gets playfully kissed on the lips, by a flirty female florist, and checks at his home, on her friend Richard.
And as Clarissa walks back home, around NYC’s Washington Square, we can still feel her pondering inside, and her interrogations about having made a mistake, when choosing her life partner years earlier (Sally), and we feel how overwhelmed she seems to be, by the gradually growing, debilitating and constraining, self doubts, regarding her romantic choices.
Let’s listen to an excerpt of this truly moving moment, sang by the great Renée Fleming:
And we come to understand quickly, that by the end of that single “operatic” day, that someone (and we don’t know who), will actually die, later that evening, (Richard does); and that Richard is actually as well, the “abandoned” young son of Laura Brown, “Richie”, and happened also, to have had a “summer fling”, with Clarissa Vaughan, in their youth, which she easily “broke off” years ago, while still remaining for years, his friend, while she eventually chose for herself, another partner (Sally).
And the ultimate outcome of the day, as Richard leaps off to his death, tired of life, is that these three women, Virginia, Laura, Clarissa, finally truly “see” each other, and philosophically sing about trying to live one own’s life, as best as possible.
So tragic and depressing, and fortunately what great music, singing, and lyrics, to illustrate the various eras, and I particularly applaud the “tour de force” to fuse “operatically” so seamlessly three destinies from different times and space/places.
And what to say of the production, the orchestra and the singers?
That Phelim Mc Dermott’s daring, rich, conceptual, staging added great entertainment to the opera. Always in motion, and often staging the 3 main characters together, and including as mentioned previously, often as well, wonderful dancing and chorus singing, to enhance the intensity of the characters states of mind, and beautifully choreographed by Annie-B Parson.
I also truly enjoyed also the specific era sets: the dullness of the early 20’s English countryside house, the bubble gum colors of the 1949 L.A. bedroom, the realistic NYC looking flower shop, reminiscent of the ones found in NYC’s flower district, and in terms of costumes, I especially liked the typical “floral” late 1940-50 look for Laura in L.A., and the elegance of the Calvin Klein late 90’s white ensemble, for the 1999 NYC Clarissa character.
Wow, and bravo!
And what wonderful orchestra and singer conducting, from maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin, what energy, enthusiasm, and nuance to convey, and separate also when needed, all 3 eras depicted, with different musical styles (simple and somber for the 20’s, happier for the late 40’s, and minimalist for the late 90’s), and to communicate as well, the various strong emotions displayed and unfolding.
Wow, and bravo!
And three singers, particularly stood out for me:
First, in the role, of early 1920′ Virginia Woolf, American mezzo-soprano, Joyce Di Donato, did not disappoint, as terrific as always, and a great actress at conveying Woolf’s fragile psychological state of mind, and her huge interior world, despite feeling imprisoned by the English countryside’s quiet.
Wow, and bravo.
Second, in the role of 1949 Laura Brown, American soprano, Kelli O’Hara was extremely moving as well, and what a great actress as well: as convincing in her portrayal of a young and loving mother in L.A., and as she was, as a, restless, bookworm, progressively drowning, and turning to addiction, to face her conservative life.
And third, in the role of Clarissa, super star, American soprano extraordinaire, Renée Fleming, was wonderful as an accomplished editor and liberated middle aged lesbian, perhaps slightly too proper, but still extremely entertaining in the florist shop, and particularly moving, especially in her scenes with Richard.
So, to sum up my feelings, about Puts’ new and highly original “Hours” opera (it was only the third Met Opera performance), admired last Monday in great company: what an extraordinary, and yet incredibly depressing tale, yet, set to awesomely beautiful orchestral music, somber and simple for the 20’s, happier for the late 40’s, and minimalist for the late 90’s, which felt more like a “musical” than a conventional opera, and what great libretto depicting well, and with wonderful language, the various eras staged often simultaneously, and with great imagination by Mc Dermott, and despite the lack of conventional arias and duets (the final trio is beautiful, but I wish there were more memorable melodies), what great singing performances from Di Donato, O’Hara, and Fleming, making us understand how much, feminism, led by the likes of Woolf, has advanced and has liberated women’s status and place in society, and even if women still have much to juggle in their lives, and there is still more that needs to be done, progress has been indeed made for women, and happiness for all of humankind, despite all the challenges, is still in sight, for all those ready to strive for it, with optimism, hard work, and respect for one another.
And not to be missed!
Until next time friends!
Eternal butterflies 😊