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Virginia Woolf is having a moment—in the world of modern music, at the very least. Her seminal novel Mrs. Dalloway inspired a modern novel, which begat a movie, and now is morphed into The Hours, a spectacular, sweeping, and lushly romantic new opera by American composer Kevin Puts, in a world premiere concert performance with the Philadelphia Orchestra (a co-commission of the Metropolitan Opera).
Earlier this season, Network for New Music premiered Waves, a 30-minute chamber work, accompanied by projected images of New York City street life. This dreamy, multilayered work by Sebastian Currier was also inspired by Mrs. Dalloway. Currier’s much shorter work is intimate and impressionistic, as opposed to The Hours, which is, well, operatic in every sense of the term.
Glass, Barber, and Strauss
The career of Puts, a Midwesterner born in 1972, has blossomed ever since he turned to opera, beginning in 2012 with his maiden voyage on this perilous sea, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Silent Night, depicting the heartbreaking Christmas Eve ceasefire amidst the hell on earth of World War I, improvised by the common soldiers. He demonstrated a lush and lyrical voice in that work, which he carries over, with enhanced mastery, to the score of The Hours. There is a rhythmic propulsiveness in the manner of John Adams and Philip Glass, as well as lilting melodic patterns that recall Samuel Barber. These identify Puts as an American artist, but surely his overwhelming musical influence is the operatic output of Richard Strauss, particularly in Puts’s ability to fluidly pivot from cacophonous, richly textured outbursts to tender, emotionally introspective vignettes.
Virginia, Laura, and Clarissa
The story of The Hours derives from the bestselling 1999 novel by Michael Cunningham, which was subsequently turned into an Academy Award-winning film. Puts, and his excellent librettist partner Greg Pierce, are challenged to achieve a simultaneous cohesion of three protagonists existing in three separate times and places: Virginia Woolf herself in 1923 England; Laura, a Woolf devotee in 1949 Los Angeles; and Clarissa, living in 1999 New York City.
Puts and Pierce mainly succeed, although the relationship between Virginia and Laura, bound by the miasma of mental illness and suicidal tendencies, is much stronger than that between Clarissa and the others (up until a last-minute, and rather contrived, plot twist). A particularly strong example occurs in the first of two duets between Virginia and Laura, referring to Mrs. Dalloway, in which both rapturously sing “one more page,” Virginia as the brooding writer, Laura as a needy reader. Ultimately, the trio meet each other in a finale of exquisite emotional complexity, as time travelers evolving into a kind of timelessness.
A major addition to the canon
The libretto is married to the music in an especially potent way. Without knowing how much of the libretto is directly lifted from Cunningham’s book, it is still easy to admire the smart and lively composition of Pierce’s words. One sample of his many pithy constructions is his description of the stultifying gentility of Woolf’s country village, where “shutters are painted before it is required” (in contrast to his vivid depictions of the riotous joy of city life in London and New York City).
The performances in this world-premiere presentation were superb, in nearly every detail. These were concert opera productions, with no sets and minimal blocking and costuming. The superstar participants did not disappoint, but the stand-out singing came from mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano, as Virginia Woolf, certainly the most theatrically and vocally challenging role in the opera, which Cano brought off with thoughtful phrasing and luminous tonality. The Hours should be a major addition to the modern operatic canon, and I can hardly wait to hear it again in a fully staged production.
What, When, Where
The Hours. Music by Kevin Puts, libretto by Greg Pierce. Conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Renée Fleming, soprano; Jennifer Johnson Cano, mezzo-soprano; Kelli O’Hara, soprano. The Philadelphia Orchestra. March 18 and 20, 2022, at the Kimmel Cultural Campus’s Verizon Hall, 300 S. Broad St., Philadelphia. (215) 893-1999 or kimmelculturalcampus.org.
All audience members aged five years or older must show proof of full Covid-19 vaccination to enter the Kimmel Cultural Campus. Children younger than five years must provide a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours of a scheduled event. Masks must be worn at all times. Seating is not distanced.
The Kimmel Cultural Campus is an ADA-compliant venue. Patrons can purchase wheelchair seating or loose chairs online, by calling Patron Services at (215) 893-1999, or by emailing [email protected]. With advance notice, Patron Services can provide options for personal care attendants, American Sign Language, Braille tickets and programs, audio descriptions, and other services.
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