Metropolitan Opera 2022-23 Review: The Hours

Joyce DiDonato, Kyle Ketelsen, Kai Edgar Shines Amidst Kevin Puts’ Gorgeous Musical Tapestry

By David Salazar

SPOILER & CONTENT WARNING: There will be a lot of spoilers for the plot details of this opera. There are  also references to self-harm and suicide.

In 2012, Kevin Puts’s “Silent Night” won the Pulitzer Prize for Music. And following that victory, the opera, which premiered in Minnesota in 2011, seemingly toured all over the country getting performances at Arizona Opera, Utah Opera, Washington National Opera, Austin Opera, Opera San Jose, Philadelphia, Calgary, Kansas City, Fort Worth, and even in Ireland.

But somehow, it never arrived at the Met Opera (OperaWire did make a case for the work when the company announced that Yannick Nézet-Séguin would be taking over the music director position with a goal of bringing new opera). However, Kevin Puts has finally been given his shot in the limelight with his new opera “The Hours,” which received its staged world premiere on Nov. 22, 2022.

And he certainly did.

Vast Musical Tapestry

“The Hours” is a new opera by Puts and librettist Greg Pierce that tells three intersecting stories set across three different timelines. In New York City at the close of the 20th century, Clarissa (Renée Fleming) is preparing a party to celebrate the life of his beloved friend Richard (Kyle Ketelsen). In Richmond, England in 1923, Virginia Woolf ponders her new novel and struggles with her inner demons. And finally in Los Angeles circa 1949, Laura Brown seemingly has it all – a loving husband, an adorable young son, and she’s pregnant. But she’s also struggling with her own sense of identity within these social strictures. The opera is based on the book by Michael Cunningham and the Academy Award-winning film by Stephen Daldry that starred Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, and Julianne Moore as Clarissa, Viriginia, and Laura, respectively.

A work like this that spans time and space requires music that is seemingly flexible in its style and approach, something that Puts is quite adept at. As a composer Puts does not seem allergic to either melodic vocal writing or tonal harmonization, both of which he integrates throughout this opera in combination with a unique balance of styles.

The opening of the opera feels like a movie score with its propulsive and potent string sound and dissonances in the brass, followed by a chorus singing “The Flowers” in increasingly fragmented lines so as to create an echo that literally transcends time and the space. When we settle into Virginia Woolf’s world, the orchestration strips down to a simple piano accompaniment and a very delicate aural fabric that also spotlights Virginia’s inner struggles. When Laura comes on the scene, we initially get a swing-like choral passage and music that intersperses showtune-like melodies with others that harken to mid-20th century cinema scores. Laura’s son Richie even sings a baroque tune halfway through the first act, furthering this mélange of music styles. At other times, we get sweeping vocal passages that draw from German romantics like Strauss and Wagner, particularly major climactic passages. Some passages that stood out in this regard were Laura getting swept up in her emotions right before kissing her neighbor Kitty or Clarissa mourning the body of her beloved Richard after he commits suicide.  And almost everything Virginia Woolf feels like one extended vocal passage.

What’s more, there’s a fantastic balance to be found between what is going on in the pit and onstage. A lot of modern opera, unfortunately, buries the singers behind intensely rhythmic recitative, barely allowing for the voice to do what it does best – SING. Instead, we get what often feels like quasi-plays (where the singing is but a mere effect to replace spoken dialogue) while the orchestra tells the story, often through intellectualized harmonic writing that feels aimed at impressing musicologists first, audience second. The result is often that the music and the experience and emotions it can generate become secondary, a soundtrack to the text rather than the center of the experience. It’s only when you digest it later on and really think about it that the structure and machine of it all makes sense and can even potentially be exciting. That isn’t to say that opera CAN’T be that (it should be that, but also more), but the in-the-moment experience never quite generates that immediacy of emotional connection and requires the viewer to do more work in retrospect.

Puts’ priorities are clearly different and there’s one passage in particular that stood out in this regard. It’s Richard’s final scene seconds before he jumps out the window to his death. The orchestra has a pleading melody. Richard isn’t singing the melody, but his line is in line rhythmically allowing for us to focus in on the intense emotional connection of the character through and with the music. You’re not just focused on the text and what it expresses, but how it is expressed through the music without having to think about it.

And to add to that sense of immediacy of connection with the viewer, Puts makes ample references and nods to other classic works throughout “The Hours.” Kathleen Kim’s Barbara sings the Queen of the Night’s famed high Fs from Die Holle Rache” during Clarissa’s meeting with her. At another moment, the violins seem to quote from one of the interludes of Britten’s “Peter Grimes” and the opening of the second act has a subtly uncanny resemblance to a passage from Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.” There was also a Stravinskyesque use of winds during one scene as Laura struggles to get out of bed. And even if it isn’t a direct musical quotation, how can you not hear the final trio between two sopranos and a mezzo and not automatically think of the grand finale of “Der Rosenkavalier.”

The openness about the vastness musical canvas also has the impact of keeping the audience engaged throughout, waiting for how Puts will eventually put it all together.

And it’s crucial that he does because Pierce’s libretto, a monster undertaking for the opera stage, is a bit all over the place, literally. Pierce’s writing, while fascinating, can be quite ambiguous at times, shifting into abstraction and jumping from scene to scene in quick succession. It definitely ensures that a lot of stuff is happening at an unrelenting pace, but it makes the first half a bit indecipherable at times, and unless you’ve seen the movie or read the book, rather aimless in the sense that we don’t really know where it’s all headed from a dramatic standpoint. To be fair, there’s a lot of story to cover and a lot of characters to introduce (including the three leads) and in opera, where music takes up a lot of time to develop, setting these stages isn’t as simple as it is in film or literature.

But to that point, the opera’s ambition leads to overstuffing of characters, some of which feel a bit underwritten. Sally (Denyce Graves) feels rather prominently underwritten in comparison to such narrative counterparts as Leonard Woolf or Dan Brown (the couples of the other two leads); these two men themselves also are a bit one dimensional, though to be fair, in an opera centering women, it’s fair to see men get the treatment women got in stories for so long. But again, that’s what makes Sally, a LGBTQIA+ character in a work that has several LGBTQIA+ characters, somewhat of a disappointment. Meanwhile, Vanessa, Virginia Woolf’s sister, barely registers as a character, in a crucial dramatic scene where Virginia seemingly threatens one of her nephews with impending doom. Same goes for Barbara, who gets a flirtatious scene with Clarissa that somehow rhymes with Laura’s with Kitty; however, whereas the latter has major dramatic and character implications for Laura’s story, Barbara’s scene, while fun musically, could probably be cut without affecting the dramatic momentum all that much.

The second half of the opera, which is also the shorter one, is admittedly far stronger in its narrative propulsion and in its emotional payoff, particularly in how it manages the death of Richard, the aftermath, and that final hopeful trio in which the heroines come together to contemplate how they must keep on trying to move forward in a difficult world.

Stage World of Possibilities

Phelim McDermott’s production is brilliant in how it takes the libretto’s structure, Puts’ musical interpretation, and then layers it with a similarly vast theatrical palette.

The meat of the production features panels that move on and off the stage, delineating several major locations: Clarissa’s NY apartment, Virginia’s studio, Richard’s apartment, Laura’s kitchen, and Laura’s bedroom. The majority of the scenes take place within those confines and it’s quite fascinating to notice certain parallels between the spaces and how they connect the characters. Laura’s bedroom is first introduced as an elevated platform, the first of such set in the opera, expressing her isolation, but also creating a precarious sensation for the viewer; with Laura constantly contemplating suicide, her set and its height foreshadows and connects with her son’s eventual suicide from the top of his building. Likewise, Richard’s apartment is also elevated on a platform, linking it with Laura’s initial room. Meanwhile, the other sets hue quite closely with one another. We see a kitchen for both Clarissa and Laura, while the dark brown of Clarissa’s apartment connects with the brown hues of Virginia’s studio.

But just as the music shifts from style to style, the set is also malleable. Anything seems possible as McDermott strips away the sets, drops a curtain, and projects a beach across it. Later on, the three main sets converge and the three leads (or at least Laura and Clarissa) switch locations, hinting at their eventual convergence at the close of the opera.

Then there’s the use of the dancers, who serve a similar function as the chorus, in that they not only serve the action directly, but also abstractly and emotionally. At the start of Act two, with Laura contemplating suicide, the dancers hold pillows seemingly mimicking or counterpointing her emotions. In another scene, they uncomfortably surround Virginia Woolf. At another moment, they cause chaos in the kitchen, spotlighting Laura’s emotional distress. Near the end of the opera, they zip around her for a wardrobe change before whisking her away into the future for her meeting with Clarissa.

Even if the integration of so many elements can result in chaotic viewing at times, most of it is so well-staged and coordinated that it doesn’t detract but adds to the action. If some of the libretto feels confusing at times, the stage magic more than makes up for it and even clarifies it.

Three Divas, One Shining Star

 The lead up to this production centered on the three women headlining the opera – Renée Fleming, Kelli O’Hara, and Joyce DiDonato.

For Fleming this was a homecoming following her Met “retirement” a few seasons back in a production of “Der Rosenkavalier.” And her first appearance, it was clear that the audience at the Met was excited to have her back. It hasn’t been that many years, but for those who forgot, Fleming immediately set out to remind audiences of her spellbinding vocal abilities throughout the night. Paired with impeccable diction throughout the evening, her ample vibrato served to express the nerves and unease that Clarissa feels throughout as she ponders whether Richard will attend the party or whether he is okay. Her standout moment came, without a doubt, in that final encounter with Richard. As she implored him to get down from the ledge, her soprano grew more accented, her singing more desperate in its intensity. And in the following scene, where she finds him on the ground, dead, she delivered some searing legato singing, her voice weeping beautifully.

If there was anything potentially disappointing in Fleming’s turn as Clarissa, it was that outside of her relationship with Richard, there was a lack of depth in the other interactions. Part of that is on the libretto (the Barbara scene), but some of it was how Fleming interacted with everyone in quite the same manner. While one might understand a certain withdrawn feeling toward Sally, it didn’t feel like there was any real connection between her and Denyce Graves (making the repeated use of “Babe” rather grating; it just sounds weird in an opera). The scene with Barbara, which is supposed to be flirtatious, didn’t quite soar, again because Fleming felt a bit disengaged. I bring this up because Clarissa’s narrative features the most character interactions and she carries the weight of making each one feel unique and different. It unfortunately didn’t feel that way.

This was further amplified by the performances of her other two co-leads. O’Hara didn’t have to move about the stage as much with a lot of her scenes locking her down either on a bed, or in her kitchen, but there was a razor-sharp focus in how her body language, as minimal as it was, communicated the despair she was feeling. Whether it be how she lay on the bed in the opening scene, or how she frozen in that very same space as she pondered suicide, or how she gently caressed her son in one scene or the stern expression she gave him in another, O’Hara’s Laura was always alive and full of intense emotions.

It helped overcome some vocal shortcomings that cropped up here and there. O’Hara sounded a bit small during her opening lines, but that might have been a function of how far back and elevated she was on stage. But eventually, her voice became more present and resonant as the night developed. Her high notes could feel a bit forced and shrill, particularly at the beginning, but as she warmed into the role they also started to brighten and cut cleanly. Without a doubt, her big moment was the opening of Act two where she contemplates suicide, her delicate singing drawing us as she read a passage from Virginia’s book. When she was later joined by Joyce DiDonato’s, the two singers blended beautifully in one of the most arresting musical cues of the entire evening (the orchestration here, with a rich bass in the strings created a sense of tension and warmth all at once).

And that brings us to Joyce DiDonato, who was the undisputed star of the night, as Virginia Woolf. The mezzo was last heard at the Met Opera in 2020 in the title role of “Agrippina” and she has been a fixture with the company in a wide range of repertory. But something about this performance struck differently. From her opening and highly exposed monologue, accompanied only by piano, DiDonato’s voice had a roundness that I hadn’t heard before, a freedom that allowed her to sculpt long lines with unparalleled warmth and elegance. Even her high note vibrato, which has always had a unique quality and color that could often feel a bit disconnected from the rest of her registers, blossomed more organically from the thicker core. That opening monologue might have been the first instance in the opera where I felt that Puts’ vocal writing had taken flight. Virtually every scene with Virginia features this kind of beautiful vocal writing, allowing DiDonato’s rich mezzo to take flight.

But Virginia wasn’t just about soaring vocal lines. In between, DiDonato delivered some incredible comic and dramatic moments. When asked to have breakfast by her husband and put something in her stomach, few people could respond with the intensity and sarcasm that DiDonato managed as she noted that she had some coffee and almonds in her stomach. Or when Nelly offers to serve her more food later in the work, she was menacing as she shut her down and demanded that they stop trying to force-feed her. Even in more contentious encounters where her husband Leonard, DiDonato’s mezzo shifted from more aggressive and leaner to slenderer and more tender. Another standout interaction was with her niece and nephews as she cuddles them, her singing sprightly before her mind and singing shifted into a darker mode as she pronounced the death of Septimus, all while menacingly pointing at her nephew.

And in the final trio, where the three artists managed some beautiful lyrical moments together, it was DiDonato’s grounded sound that gave the passage its depth and warmth.

The Main Men 

While this is an opera about women, men do play an important role, none more notable than that of Richard, the man that Clarissa is hoping to save. Taking on this intense role was Kyle Ketelsen who also stole every scene he was in. We first meet Richard in his apartment, pale, broken, and despairing. Ketelsen’s voice, hard-edged and accented, snarled and barked at Clarissa, emphasizing his state of mind; his darker, rugged sound contrasted wonderfully with Fleming’s brighter color. He also stayed mostly rooted to the sofa, his body language transmitting this sense of defeat. Ketelsen returns a few scenes later in a flashback, sporting a red shirt, his singing far more full-bodied, brighter in color, and more fluid in line. Standing tall and firm, there was also a looseness in his body language that allowed us to see the Richard that once was, adding to the pain of watching the man he has become.

And that’s what made his final scene arguably the most potent of the entire opera. Sitting by the ledge as Clarissa enters, Ketelsen’s Richard engaged in a game of cat and mouse, moving from window to window, despite Clarissa’s constant pleas. At one point, as he lamented not knowing what to do with the hours coming his way, his voice melted into a weep, a devastating moment that really expressed the existential crisis that he was at odds with. If in his first scene he sounded bitter and aggressive, here his baritone, noticeably softer in timbre, was full of pain but also acceptance. In that pivotal moment, Ketelsen simply let his body drop, adding to the pain of the moment. Puts, in another one of his finest moments, scores this with a gentle suspended chord, where other composers would have gone for a bombastic dissonant orchestral explosion. That musical cliché automatically hijacks a tragic moment like this, pulling the listener into the aural maelstrom, leaving the tragic moment behind. But Puts’ choice lends this moment greater intimacy for the listener, allowing them to truly process what is going on before letting the despair set in with a choral explosion.

Another standout performance came from Kai Edgar, all of 11-years-old, in the role of Richie. Credit to Puts for giving such an ample role to a child performer, but even more so to Edgar who looked unfazed on the Met stage as he sang throughout the night with confidence. He even gets a solo, the aforementioned baroque tune, that he managed quite well. But he didn’t just have to sing – at moments, the opera actually probes the young boy’s emotions as he asks his mother straight up if she went to the hospital, Edgar’s eyes searching for O’Hara’s in what resulted in a truly gut-wrenching moment.

Sean Panikkar delivered a warm tenor as Leonard Woolf, giving his character warmth. There were hints of despair and agitation with Virginia, but Panikkar, whose body language was gentle and fluid, made Leonard out to be a more supportive figure.

Bass-baritone Brandon Cedel provided an interesting counterpart as Laura’s husband Dan Brown. Where Pannikkar was concerned, Cedel’s Dan was completely sunny and unflustered, his voice relishing every line; few can sing the word “Fantabulous” with that much gusto and keep a straight-face.

Strong Support

John Holiday played the Man under the Arch, a spirit-like presence that, with the exception of one scene, sang intermezzo-like vocalizes throughout. Holiday’s countertenor is quite beautiful in its texture, sounding free but also resonating quite potently in the Met. I don’t think I’ve quite heard any countertenor singing at the Met, blossom with such depth and volume as Holiday does. Again, his passages were other examples of Puts’ ability to write some glorious lines for the voice.

Sylvia D’Eramo appeared in two scenes as Kitty and then Vanessa. While Vanessa was not a particularly potent presence in the overall fabric of the work, her Kitty more than delivered. From her very first entrance as Kitty, she delivered a potent and dark soprano that contrasted nicely with the O’Hara’s softer timbre. She moved about the stage as if she owned it, immediately allowing the audience to see and feel why Laura might have interest in her. In addition to the authority was a more playful and flirtatious side, which further intensified the encounter, allowing for the sudden kiss at its apex to deliver. But right after that moment, D’Eramo, utilized a darker texture to ask Laura for a favor, adding tension to the scene.

Kathleen Kim, always a scene stealer, delivered vocal fireworks with her Queen of the Night passages as Barbara, while somehow sounding worlds different as Mrs. Latch. Whereas Barbara was characterized with unrestrained vocal brightness and pop, Mrs. Latch was softer and drier in timbre.

As Sally, Denyce Graves’ ample mezzo, even with its unwieldy vibrato, had presence and strength, which added to the frustration that she wasn’t given more to do than to try and get Clarissa’s attention.

Tony Stevensen as Walter, William Burden as Louis, Lena Josephine Marano as Angelica, Atticus Ware as Julian, and Patrick Scott McDermott as Quentin filled in well in their respective roles.

Finally at the Met 

It’s been largely underwritten how two months in, the Met Opera’s music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin had yet to lead the company in any opera, especially when you consider how the past year he canceled his participation a production and also withdrew from the end of another run of “Don Carlo,” even skipping out on the HD performance. But here he was, finally making his very first appearance of the 2022-23 season. In this case it was better late than never.

As per usual, the Met Opera music director, who cuts frustratingly inconsistent form in repertory staples, excels in modern works. From the opening notes of this production, it was clear that he was in complete control of the Met Opera orchestra. He seemed quite attuned to his soloists throughout the night, ensuring that they always cut cleanly over the orchestra; even at the most potent fortissimo climaxes, the voices were always clear amidst the texture. Engaging with a new work for the first time can be a major challenge unless the person in the pit is able to deliver through with clarity and concision; there’s no doubt that (based on all I was able to write about the score in this review), Nézet-Séguin managed exactly that throughout the evening. He’s also set to conduct “Champion” later this season, which given his track record with newer works, generates anticipation for that production as well.

For those familiar with the numerous reviews I have written already this season, this is going to sound like a broken record. But the truth is, the 2022-23 season is shaping up to be one of the best the Met Opera has produced in some time. You can add “The Hours” to the list of must-see operas this season.


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