The Metropolitan Opera was presenting in cinemas around the world on Saturday The Hours by Kevin Puts on a libretto by Greg Pierce based on the novel by Michael Cunningham. Exciting, even overwhelming experience of discovering a new opera, as was that ofEurydice by Matthew Aucoin last season.
In the opera The Hours, a character both real and allegorical (sometimes a hotel concierge, sometimes the personification of death), a countertenor, prowls the stage. Sometimes it’s time, sometimes not. Too early in 1923 for Virginia Woolf to kill herself in the river. She will take action in 1941. Fatal hour, on the other hand, for Richard Brown, the author suffering from AIDS.
The Hours, by Michael Cunningham, adapted here, is based on the “progressive concordance of times”. The process of developing the novel Mrs. dalloway (1925) by Virginia Woolf in 1923 will find resonance in the lives of Laura Brown in 1949 and Clarissa Vaughan in 1999.
What is the time of the opera genre? How not to think that we are one hundred years after a golden age: that of the works of Richard Strauss, Erich Wolfgang Korngold (Die tote Stadt1920) and Franz Schreker (Die Gezeichneten, 1915), the latter two crushed by Nazi totalitarianism. Incredible to imagine that fifty years ago, the avant-garde wanted to “burn down the opera houses”, this genre then symbolizing the music to be destroyed.
The arsonists lost, we’ve known that for about two decades. But what is happening before our eyes is now much stronger than a reversal: it is a return to a golden age. The Hours by Kevin Puts is one of the incarnations of this resurrection which reminds us that it is through opera, and vocal cycles on texts of our time in symphonic concerts, that a return to grace and an enlargement will take place of the so-called “classical” music audience.
The merit of dazzling
To get there, we had to go through the “hot topics” phase (Klinghoffer, Powder her Face, Nixon in China) and prove, sometimes to excess (Anna-NicoleTurnage’s 2011 opera about a starlet who had her breasts swollen), that opera could still be in tune with our daily lives.
Now the subjects are deeper; we got back to the essence of things. In The beauty of the world, Julien Bilodeau and Michel Marc Bouchard have just wondered about the place of art in our lives. So, of course, why not rub shoulders with The Hours. Layers of masterpieces and genius stacked up: the life and writing of Virginia Woolf; the mirroring by Michael Cunningham in a novel that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999; a no less exceptional film by Stephen Daldry (2002) with Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman and Julianne Moore.
Obviously, there is the enormous risk of disappointment. The Hours by Kevin Putts and Greg Pierce has the immense merit of dazzling. By the booklet first. Have we seen more implacable, more incredibly meticulous since Written on Skin of George Benjamin and Martin Crimp? Not a word too much, solutions to everything, perfect entanglements of situations, the right balance of dialogues, monologues, thoughts, duets.
What the opera loses compared to the cinema are the interstitial scenes such as Laura’s torments in the bathroom showing her panicking at the idea of joining her husband in the marital bed. But librettist Greg Pierce preserves while instilling subtle phrases. Opera reinforces the symbioses, since the scenes can take place at the same time with overlapping singing. So we see Virginia’s decisions dictate Laura’s survival.
The opera insists more on this invisible interconnection of beings and their destinies, object of the final trio, somewhat understating the weight of repressed homosexuality, at least in Virginia. But The Hours masterfully underlines the tumults of the soul. The process of distinguishing when a protagonist speaks and when they think is handled by orchestration. The piano or metallophones and high-pitched instruments accompany the characters who escape into their thoughts; a stormy orchestration punctuates their resolutions.
In doing so, Kevin Puts, who quickly also uses music in temporal contexts (parody of style big band to portray the universe of post-war Los Angeles), stands out from the style of Philip Glass for Daldry’s film, whose music was like a hamster gnawing at the consciousness of beings.
The opera gives a major role to the choir, the crowd but also the society that forges the norms. Phelim McDermott and choreographer Annie-B Parson’s show adds ubiquitous dancers to heighten the expressive power of the scenes. With ingenious costumes by Tom Pye and lighting by Bruno Poet, McDermott visually uses the metaphor of water to simulate depressive and suicidal thoughts.
The Hours of Puts and Pierce has so many levels of reading, opens up so many avenues (is Richard Brown’s book a message to his mother, whose character would then link two writings beyond time?) that it evokes a kind of Turn of the Screw of the XXIe century.
Kingpin of the project, Renée Fleming, 63, displays an astonishing vocal form, facing the magnetism of Joyce DiDonato, enhanced by the proximity of the cameras and the surprising Kelli O’Hara. As for Kyle Ketelsen as Richard Brown, he equals in strength and presence the performance of Ed Harris in the film. Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s impact now goes beyond conducting. His legacy will be patrimonial, therefore historical.