NEW YORK — Though obviously not a film, let alone a Broadway show, The Hours, an often-lyrical new opera by Kevin Puts at the Metropolitan Opera through Dec. 15, is strongly influenced by the film of the same title. The film in turn was drawn from a novel by Michael Cunningham — his take on Mrs. Dalloway, a novel by Virginia Woolf. Familiarity with any of these versions shapes a parallel libretto, but knowing a couple of Broadway shows and stars helps also.
Using the outline of the book and film, the overstocked opera follows Clarissa Vaughan through a single, Ulysses-like day, dramatizing her tribulations, plans, sorrows, epiphanies, and prose, limned by librettist Greg Pierce. Clarissa in the opera evokes Clarissa Dalloway in Virginia Woolf’s book, which the author wrote while beginning to lose her sanity — and scare her concerned husband.
The film and the opera add other lead female roles to the book: Vaughan, a New York editor with a Black girlfriend, shares the foreground with the suicidal Woolf, who in 1923 writes Mrs. Dalloway and joins her beloved sister’s children arranging a funeral for a bird. Laura Brown, a pregnant Los Angeles mother who in 1949 contemplates suicide, almost tries it before returning to her loving husband and anxious son.
The opera project, in part the idea of Renée Fleming, lured the renowned diva back to the Met stage, where she last sang in 2017. Fleming is an enormously intelligent and a hard worker, and her voice, if not as sumptuous as in her legendary Strauss roles, was absolutely in place, ready to be enticed toward a couple of future Met appearances.
Virginia was sung by mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, quoted in the program as saying, “An opera should be written only when the emotion is so big that speaking is just not enough.” Direction and focus characterized her performance, though maybe the approaching madness was less convincing because of DiDonato’s self-possession. (Actually, she seemed saner than the other two ladies.)
Laura, the tormented mom, was the graceful Kelli O’Hara, as talented and easy on the eyes as she was in major Broadway shows she headlined, back to South Pacific and, further, The Pajama Game and a multitude of others. Most Broadway ingenues age into someone with lots of makeup who belts out one of her old hits at gala events to great applause. O’Hara, in contrast, moved into acting (she currently plays a society wife on HBO’s The Gilded Age) and also — also! — big parts at the Metropolitan Opera.
Bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen as Richard, Clarissa’s former boyfriend who has AIDS, has sung Leporello and other Met roles. He managed to be both commanding and sympathetic while jumping out a window and ruining the party Clarissa made for him, after she spent the whole day buying the flowers, herself.
Denyce Graves, in blue jeans, was underused as Clarissa’s girlfriend, but anyone could count it a boon to sing in a Met production with famed lead singers under music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who had conducted a concert performance of the work with the Philadelphia Orchestra last spring and led here with a comfortable-to-follow, on-the-money assurance and commitment that buoyed the whole cast.
The physically active chorus clad in gray, including dancers, some in toe shoes, represented Virginia’s imagination. Or were meant to. Those who are familiar with the Broadway show Hamilton will recall nameless beige-clad dancing figures who added — not sure what but certainly filled the stage. Surely Phelim McDermott, the Met’s British director, who staged both of the Met’s recent Philip Glass productions, absorbed Hamilton’s idea of imaginary action figures, which works better on Broadway. The lighted proscenium that changed color, by Bruno Poet, deserves praise, as do costumes depicting three different eras, by Tom Pye.
The Hours seemed as if someone putting it together thought there wasn’t enough going on, when in fact the opera’s whole mise-en-scene teems with fasten-your-seat-belt ideas. Moments of beauty flew by, and maybe more were missed in the scramble to grab connections.
The finale was a trio for the three protagonists, a luscious nod to Der Rosenkavalier, Fleming’s last Met appearance. The Hours should benefit from future hearings and revisions. But did the audience walk out of the first Rigoletto trying to figure out what they had missed? Overlong as The Hours was, it gave a sense that too much was not enough. Looking forward to another version down the road.