The Hours, Metropolitan Opera review — Joyce DiDonato is outstanding as Virginia Woolf

Joyce DiDonato as Virginia Woolf in Kevin Puts’s ‘The Hours’ © Evan Zimmerman/Met Opera

TV station PBS called it “the opera event of the year”: the world premiere production of The Hours, Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1998 novel, in an adaptation by composer Kevin Puts and librettist Greg Pierce. The book was filmed by Stephen Daldry four years later and, emulating the film, the Met has enlisted three divas for a drama fabricated from three stories, each with its own time and place, about women frustrated with the course of their lives.

They unfold arrestingly in Pierce’s libretto. Joyce DiDonato, who emerges as the vocal standout, is gripping as Virginia Woolf, constrained for mental health reasons in 1923 to write her novel Mrs Dalloway in tranquil suburban Richmond while deeply missing London. Broadway star Kelli O’Hara gives a striking performance as Laura Brown, who languishes as a wife and mother in 1949 Los Angeles, finding escape in Mrs Dalloway.

Renée Fleming is Clarissa Vaughan, an editor who takes care of Richard (Kyle Ketelsen in vivid form), now dying of Aids, with whom she had a summer fling and who wishes she had spent her life with, instead of her female partner. Fleming sounded vocally fragile at first yet gave an affecting, introspective account. This was her first Met performance since 2017, after which she retired from singing conventional operatic roles.

A blonde woman in a 1940s floral dress kneels down as she talks to a young boy carrying a toy rabbit
Kai Edgar (left) as Richie and Kelli O’Hara as Laura Brown © Evan Zimmerman

Fleming, who suggested the possibility of an operatic version of The Hours to the Met, is one of many who have recognised Puts’s ability to write for voices. Indeed, with Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting, the score’s best moments come when female voices soar in melodies that can be ravishing. Sometimes transitional passages between one storyline and the next find voices from each overlapping to fine effect, most strikingly in a duet for Laura and Virginia in act two.

Sometimes, the characters are differentiated musically. Pop music from the Forties is heard when Laura is introduced, and Virginia’s lines have a jerky, telegraph-like accompaniment. Overall, though, the music is more similar than different. The Hours holds one’s interest, but a certain predictability develops which lessons the impact of the opera’s final trio for the three stars.

A woman in a blue cardigan, a woman in a white dress and a woman in a rose-patterned dress sing
From left: Kelli O’Hara as Laura Brown, Renée Fleming as Clarissa Vaughan, and Joyce DiDonato as Virginia Woolf © Evan Zimmerman

A more effective use of the chorus could have provided welcome variety. Instead, choruses sometimes impede dramatic flow, particularly in seeming to encapsulate characters’ thoughts, for example when they mumble words from the opening sentence of Mrs Dalloway as Virginia struggles to compose them. An angry choral outburst after Richard’s suicide also seemed out of place.

The production by Phelim McDermott efficiently deals with the opera’s multiple venues, thanks to the designer Tom Pye’s sets and costumes, which aptly reflect the timeframes. But the staging is overdone in deploying choristers and, especially, dancers. Surrealistic choreography by Annie-B Parson — which includes figures showing up randomly in Virginia’s study and Laura’s kitchen or sprawled like cadavers on sofas in Richard’s apartment — conflicts significantly with the opera’s realistic treatment of its subject and even other aspects of the production.


To December 15; streamed in cinemas on December 10,

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