Puts: The Hours (Live)

“It’s truly one of the greatest written roles I have had the privilege of singing,” mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato tells Apple Music Classical about her role as the British novelist Virginia Woolf in Kevin Puts’ The Hours. The opera, heard here in a live recording from the premiere production at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, revolves around Woolf writing her seminal novel Mrs Dalloway, and how it resonates in the lives of women in two subsequent generations—Laura in 1951 and Clarissa in 2001. The story was first told by Michael Cunningham in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, and was then adapted for a film starring Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, and Nicole Kidman. Taking on the mantle of these three great actresses are three of America’s top singers: Fleming, who plays the 21st-century Clarissa, DiDonato in the role for which Nicole Kidman won an Oscar, and soprano Kelli O’Hara as Laura. O’Hara, who has distinguished herself in musical theater, plays a character whose 1950s era is evoked by jazz-inflected music, the chorus breaking into scat-style singing. In fact, the chorus’ function is far more versatile than is usually heard in so many of the mainstream operas. While it sometimes conjures a particular period, as when we are introduced to the 1950s world in which Laura feels such a misfit, at other times it appears to reflect and project the preoccupations of its characters. “We have a kind of Greek chorus that accompanies the entire piece,” says DiDonato, “bringing unity to these different stories—echoing the fears and joys and doubts of these women.” The chorus also, DiDonato says, provides a sonic cohesion between what she describes as “three distinct musical languages for each of the women.” For Woolf, Puts created a quasi-Baroque style with a prominent role for solo piano, suggesting bourgeois domesticity, though with unexpected harmonic shifts to reflect, the composer explains, the “complexity of her mind and the unpredictable paths that her writing takes.” DiDonato praises Puts’ musical depiction of the author: “There is almost a Baroque-type quality to her music at the start, and the mania that comes in is woven so perfectly. I find the way the entire role of Virginia is crafted is truly masterful. She is not a caricature, but instead a very fully formed person who leans into her challenges, weaknesses, and strengths.” For the 21st-century Manhattan inhabited by Clarissa, Puts created a bolder, more dynamic soundscape that gives stylistic nods to contemporary composers Steve Reich and John Adams, but with roots in the poignant lyricism of Samuel Barber. Yet, as DiDonato explains, Puts manages to find links and parallels between the three women in their different times and places—and not just through the chorus. “A favorite moment for me in the opera develops as Virginia finally puts pen to paper and begins her novel: we hear her singing unfold as the words finally begin flow to her. “Overlapping this, we hear Laura’s voice enter from above as she reads these same words for the first time in her bedroom. All of a sudden we are in a brilliant duet being sung in thirds: the very same words but two extremely different experiences. This musical communion elevates the common experience in a way that the movie, or even the novel, couldn't possibly achieve.” The opera ultimately culminates in all three women musically uniting in Act II’s finale—a moment comparable with the sublime trio of Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier, an opera closely associated with Fleming’s own career. Yet DiDonato cites another highlight earlier in that act: “I find the duet for Virginia and Laura at the start of Act II to be utterly sublime. It has that rare quality that I live for in opera: it allows time to stand perfectly still, and yet, somehow, at the end of the duet you feel changed. It’s truly a gift.”

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