Slow Hours

The trio, photo @ Evan Zimmerman

Kevin Puts' The Hours has a lot going for it. It's an adaptation of a beloved book and movie. Puts' music is always listenable and often lovely -- unlike many contemporary opera composers, Puts believes in soaring melodies and set pieces. The Met has assembled an all-star cast -- Renee Fleming (Clarissa), Joyce DiDonato (Virginia Woolf), and Kelli O'Hara (Laura) are fine singers. The heavy themes (the creative process, suicidal ideation, AIDS, sexuality, same-sex relationships) are all presented in a tasteful manner. And last but not least, the whole run is a box office hit, with the Met jacking up prices to $250 and above per ticket.

Kelli O'Hara, photo @ Evan Zimmerman    
But ... the whole thing is so slow. Despite running a hair under three hours (shorter than such classics like La Traviata or Turandot), the first act dragged endlessly. Part of it is structure -- the first act is almost all expositional as it introduces the three interweaving storylines. In 2001 NYC, Clarissa (Renee Fleming) is planning a party for her AIDS-stricken ex-lover Richard (Kyle Ketelsen). In 1951 Los Angeles, an unhappy, pregnant housewife Laura (Kelli O'Hara) contemplates killing herself despite having a loving husband and adorable young son. In 1923 England, novelist Virginia Woolf (Joyce DiDonato) struggles with depression as she writes her novel Mrs. Dalloway. 

DiDonato and chorus, photo @ Evan Zimmerman
Part of it is the direction -- director Phelim McDermott decided to crowd the stage with a large tediously over-choreographed chorus. It is incredibly tiresome to have them slow-walking, crawling, dancing, cleaning, playing with flowers, as the drama unfolds. It's hard to believe that they probably paid good money for Annie-B Parson's banal choreography. This was particularly egregious in the Virginia Woolf scenes -- Virginia's inward monologues always had a distracting gaggle of female chorus members "writing" in books and twirling flowers. It takes away from what is inherently an intimate chamber-opera. The somewhat dull scenery also doesn't really take us into the different time periods and locales. This is a disappointment after McDermott's gripping Akhnaten.

The overly busy chorus, photo @ Evan Zimmerman
The biggest reason for the longueurs of the opera is Kevin Puts' music. It lacks the propulsive energy of Philip Glass's famous soundtrack for the movie. There's many beautiful moments, but a lot of it is both syrupy and mundane. There's little rhythmic changes to indicate the different moods and stories. Greg Pierce's libretto also drags certain scenes on for way too long and then rushes through other scenes. For instance, Laura's opening scene where she expresses her unhappiness goes on and on, but the pivotal scene with neighbor Kitty (Sylvia D'Eramo) is oddly brief and perfunctory. The movie has sexual tension building between Laura and Kitty which culminates in a kiss. In the opera, Kitty comes over, asks Laura to babysit her dog, and they kiss. That's it. 

The other day I saw a Broadway revival of August Wilson's The Piano Lesson. That is a long, wordy play with a run-time almost as long as The Hours, but the crackling dialogue, strong acting and expert pacing made the hours fly by. Even when nothing overt was "happening," the tension between Berniece and Boy Willie made every scene gripping. It never felt like a slow slog. (FYI: go see this wonderful revival with Samuel L. Jackson, John David Washington, a hilarious Ray Fischer, and Danielle Moore before it closes in January!)

Ketelsen and Fleming, photo @ Evan Zimmerman
The opera does pick up considerably in the second act. The storyline between Richard and Clarissa reaches its conclusion in a gripping dialogue. The connections between the three women is also clarified, and the final trio is by far the most beautiful moment in the opera. It reminded me of the final trio in Der Rosenkavalier

The cast is pretty wonderful. Their acting is not early as specific as the film (I mean, hard to compete with Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, and Nicole Kidman), but they put the characters across well. The voices of the three principal women are distinctive enough that one can mentally switch right away between the three different storylines. Renee Fleming's voice is plush and soothing, with a top that still soars. Kelli O'Hara's voice is bright and high, suitable for her role as an unhappy, super-traditional 1950's housewife. Joyce DiDonato's voice pulsates with a strong vibrato that in other music can be distracting but in this opera matches Virginia Woolf's mental torment.

The scenery, photo @ Evan Zimmerman
The supporting roles were all well cast -- Kyle Ketselsen's (Richard) handsome bass baritone made Clarissa's adoration understandable. Brandon Cedel (Dan) also had a pleasant voice that was perfect for his regular-guy role. Kathleen Kim (Barbara/Mrs. Latch) had a brief but memorable coloratura aria. The only sour spot was Denyce Graves (Sally). This veteran mezzos has for whatever reason become the go-to singer for older character roles. Graves' voice is unsteady and shrill. 

I don't know how much this opera will stay in the repertoire. Despite its many strong attributes, I feel like this opera wastes too many notes. There is a beautiful, moving ending, but it is a long slog to get there.


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