‘The Hours’ Opera Review: Michael Cunningham’s Three Tall Women Now Sing

The wonderful Virginia Woolf triptych brings together Renée Fleming, Kelli O’Hara and Joyce DiDonato

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Kelli O'Hara, Renée Fleming and Denyce Graves in Kevin Puts' "The Hours" (Photo: Evan Zimmerman / Met Opera)

“Wonderful” is a word that Clarissa Vaughan says a lot, even though her close friend Richard tells her it is one he has never put in one of his poems. The new opera “The Hours” is wonderful in the most old-fashioned kind of way. Not only has it been written for a diva, the show is about a diva – and in this case, three of them. Renée Fleming, Joyce DiDonato and Kelli O’Hara take over here for, respectively, Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman and Julianne Moore in the 2002 film version based on the 1998 novel by Michael Cunningham.

Opera lovers often find themselves being compelled to see another “Tosca” or “Adriana Lecouvreur,” not because they like those two operas very much, but because it’s worth seeing a new diva take on the title role. And who knows? She just might put new life into the old warhorse.

The title characters in “Tosca” and “Adriana Lecouvreur” are performers – one a singer, the other an actress. Cunningham’s characters are much less theatrical: the editor Clarissa Vaughan (Fleming), the novelist Virginia Woolf (DiDonato) and the housewife-mother Laura Brown (O’Hara). In the opera version, however, Kevin Puts’ music and Greg Pierce’s libretto turn all three into genuine divas, and as with all divas from the great verismo operas, these women are tormented. And they sing unabashedly about their demons and what haunts them in big arias.

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Kelli O’Hara, Renée Fleming and Joyce DiDonato in Kevin Puts’ “The Hours” (Photo: Evan Zimmerman / Met Opera)

“The Hours” is not one of those modern operas where the casual listener can’t tell the recitative from the arias, if there are any. Puts employs a lush orchestral cushion to prevent breaks in the music after each aria, duet or trio. Yet, these set pieces are very much present, and they often let the singers’ voices soar out into the vast auditorium of the Metropolitan Opera, where “The Hours” had its premiere Tuesday after a concert performance in Philadelphia last March.

Modern composers know how to write for the orchestra, sometimes the chorus, but too many of them tend not to write effectively for the individual voice. With such recent works as Mathew Aucoin’s “Eurydice” or Nico Muhly’s “Marnie,” you follow the orchestra to maintain interest. You don’t remember what any vocal soloist has just sung.

That’s not the case with Puts, who writes for strong divas as well as divos. He even writes a coloratura comic number for a comprimario, the saleswoman (the delightful Kathleen Kim) in a Manhattan shop when Clarissa buys flowers for the party to honor her dying poet-friend, Richard (Kyle Ketelsen in strong voice despite the character’s state of health). It is especially touching because, like so many service workers, this woman behind the counter came to New York City to be an actor or singer. She ended up selling flowers.

Here and there, admirers of the score for Stephen Daldry’s film version of “The Hours” will find nods to Philip Glass. The orchestra and chorus sometimes indulge in those signature repetitions without ever being as pronounced or as prolonged.

The opera adds a haunting leitmotif in the presence of the great countertenor John Holiday, who plays a variety of roles, either coaxing or preventing or just observing characters as they contemplate suicide.

Pierce is most successful in his piano accompaniments for DiDonato’s Virginia Woolf character. Despite the phenomenal success of “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta” from Puccini’s “La Rondine,” the piano is not an instrument usually associated with opera. Maybe it should be. The strongest of the three star singers here, DiDonato achieves the greatest poignancy in Woolf’s descent into despair. DiDonato also has the easiest task, thanks to that piano.

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Kathleen Kim and Renée Fleming in Kevin Puts’ “The Hours” (Photo: Evan Zimmerman / Met Opera)

Yannick Nezet-Seguin conducts, and his powerfully layered interpretation of Puts’ lush orchestrations sometimes swamps the voices of O’Hara and Fleming. They’re almost always audible, but their vocal presence sometimes recedes when it should dominate the music. Puts is at his weakest with his orchestrations for the Laura Brown scenes, set in 1949, where he attempts to evoke that era by presenting harmonies reminiscent of what O’Hara might have confronted in one of her Broadway forays into Rodgers & Hammerstein. Or is Puts aping Lawrence Welk here?

Pierce’s libretto takes full advantage of musical theater’s liquidity, a characteristic that has nothing to do with stocks or bonds. Unlike the novel or the film, Cunningham’s three women can now speak to each other across the decades. They even end “The Hours,” not with Woolf’s fateful walk into the water but with a majestic trio written for one mezzo and two sopranos, a nod to how Richard Strauss concludes “Der Rosenkavalier.”

To emphasize the characters’ many demons in “The Hours,” stage director Phelim McDermott employs a small corps of dancers. They are there leaping and twirling when Laura bakes her cake, when Richard rests on his living room couch, when Virginia attempts to write a sentence of her new novel, when Clarissa buys her flowers. Sometimes it is difficult to tell if they are needed to tell us what McDermott must believe the music isn’t telling us — or to fill out the empty spaces of Tom Pye’s often cluttered-looking set.