Karen, Renée, Stephanie, Richard, and I saw *The Hours* at the Met on December 15, 2022. It's a brand new opera with music by Kevin Puts and a libretto by Greg Pierce, based on the book by Michael Cunningham and the 2002 movie. I'm a big fan of the movie and enjoyed the book - - I'll see any new opera at the Met but this one really had me curious.
It's the story of three women: first, Virginia Woolf in Richmond, England in 1923. She's writing the novel *Mrs. Dalloway* and struggling with her personal demons. Second, Laura Brown in Los Angeles in 1949. She has a picture-perfect American life, a wonderful husband and son and a lovely home - - she's expecting a baby and yet feels stifled and dissatisfied with her life. She's reading *Mrs. Dalloway* and feels a connection to Woolf. And third, Clarissa Vaughan in New York City in the 1990s. She seems to have the happiest life of the three - - she's in a fulfilling relationship with her partner Sally. She's throwing a party for her best friend and former lover Richard, who is dying of AIDS. Her turmoil is about taking care of him. His nickname for her is "Mrs. Dalloway," which she hates because the character is "tragic."
The opera was the brainchild of soprano Renée Fleming, who thought the role of Clarissa would be a good one for her, and thought that Puts would be a good choice to write the piece. The Met cast Joyce DiDonato as Virginia Woolf and Kelli O'Hara as Laura Brown. I believe all of the previous performances in the run were conducted by the Met's music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin but ours (the final performance) was conducted by Kensho Watanabe, in his Met debut. He was extraordinary - - it appeared to be a demanding score and he kept things moving, brought out lots of lovely orchestral details, didn't cover the singers, did everything you want an opera conductor to do.
Let me talk about the performances first. I heard a lot of impressions about the opera from friends who had seen it in the house, or seen the HD broadcast in movie theaters the week before, or read reviews of it. They all said that either Fleming or DiDonato were the best thing in the show but I was most impressed with O'Hara. I'd seen her many times in Broadway shows (in *The King and I,* *Far From Heaven* off Broadway, and *My Fair Lady* with the New York Phil are the three that leap to mind) and in both of her previous Met roles. She made her Met debut in a supporting role in *The Merry Widow,* which is really more like a musical, that wasn't such a stretch. I wasn't pleased at all with her next Met role, in Mozart's *Cosi fan tutte.* I felt like her voice didn't have enough juice, she didn't sound anything like an opera singer to me. But wow, she was the real deal in this. Her voice was full, creamy, highly expressive, and of the three leads she had the greatest facility with the text. She put over the words in a deeply meaningful way.
DiDonato was amazing. I've seen her many times at the Met, most recently in Handel's *Agrippina.* I've always marveled at her ability to express things with her voice, she's a master at that. She also embodied her character in a deep way - - her round-shouldered hunch said a lot about Woolf's unhappiness.
Fleming has been a big star at the Met for about thirty years, I've seen her many, many times in opera and recital. The greatest role I've seen her in was as Handel's *Alcina* at Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1999. I have to say that in this show she was a disappointment. Her voice sounded thin and a bit hollow. She still sounds like Renée Fleming, which isn't necessarily a good thing (her tendency to overdo things was on full display in this show), and the high notes are still impressive, but it's clear that she's not the artist she once was. Which is no surprise at this point in her career. I read about another soprano of a certain age (I don't remember who), that she was wise to do new works because she couldn't be compared to anyone else, or most dangerously, compared to her younger self. Ouch. It's a tough business.
The opera is about those three women but there was a large supporting cast. Kyle Ketelsen was the standout as Clarissa's best friend, Richard. He sang with great beauty and tenderness. Karen felt that he was an odd choice because he's considerably younger than Fleming and they're supposed to be the same age, but I didn't have a problem with it - - opera is full of these kinds of incongruities. Stephanie was especially impressed with Kai Edgar, who played Laura Brown's young son. It was a big part for such a young kid (I'd guess he's about 10, maybe a bit older). To quote Stephanie, "He gave it just the right feeling - very heartfelt and heartbreaking as he tried to help his mother and can't understand her distress."
I had major problems with the staging by director Phelim McDermott. Puts wrote a lot of music for the chorus: sometimes they were voices in people's heads, sometimes they were people the scene, sometimes they served as a narrator. McDermott had them onstage way too much and worst of all, had about ten dancers onstage, moving around all over hell. My friend Renée's sister-in-law had seen the show last week and was bothered by all of the movement. I take it one step further - - it made me angry. It was a horrible distraction from the story of the three women. It's like the director didn't trust the opera to hold our attention, he felt like he needed to add all this irrelevant crap onstage. Like in the scene where Laura is making a cake with her son, do we need four dancers in the kitchen with them, pirouetting around with mixing bowls and whisks? No, we do not. I'd love to see another production with no dancers and with the chorus sitting on folding chairs at the back of the stage.
The opera itself was the star of the show. I was intrigued and a little skeptical about how the book and film would be adapted as an opera. How would Puts and Pierce make the transition necessary in the new medium? They did that in the most inventive and extraordinary way. The overlapping of the stories was done in the music. Often two or more of the central characters were onstage at the same time, usually experiencing some kind of parallel moment in their lives. Best of all, at the end of the opera, when Laura and Clarissa were onstage together, in a literal and not imaginary way, they looked to the side of the stage and Virginia Woolf walked over and sat with them. The three of them sang a trio that had me in tears. Here's a clip from that trio: O'Hara on the left, Fleming in the middle, DiDonato on the right.