The Met proves opera doesn’t have to be afraid of Virginia Woolf

Actors Kelli O’Hara, Renee Lynn Fleming and Joyce DiDonato perform during a rehearsal for The Hours at the Metropolitan Opera in New York on November 18, 2022 – AFP/Angela Weiss

It’s something. On the vast spaces of the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Michael Cunningham’s intimate novel, which became a landmark film by Stephen Daldry in 2002, was transformed into an opera. Librettist Greg Pierce and composer Kevin Puts took the novel’s three strands – Virginia Woolf writing in 1923, a depressed Laura Brown reading it in 1949, and Clarissa Vaughan throwing a party for an AIDS victim in 1999 – and weaved them together in a tapestry of love and loss, as three individuals and their partners make their agonizing decisions about whether to live or die.

The three stories in the book relate only to the last moment, when it appears that Laura’s grandson has grown up to be Richard, the AIDS victim who chooses death by falling from his New York window (in the scene the most moving of the opera). But three separate strands do not make an opera, and the success of this new work is due to the skill with which the librettist and the composer connect the stories to the overlapping narratives, using the multi-voice ensembles that the opera makes possible, underpinned by a superb integration staged by Phelim McDermott and his designer Tom Pye. Its three domestic sets glide across the stage and are linked by commentary from a chorus of Greek tragedy and (probably too elaborate) choreography by Annie-B Parson.

The appeal of the show, however, is the three singers it was designed for, and who deliver it with consummate understanding. Surely Joyce DiDonato has done nothing more beautiful than her tortured Virginia Woolf: even without the depiction of her drowning that frames the film, she touches on tragedy with her obsessive prescience that someone is going to die. As Laura, about to abandon her husband and son, Kelli O’Hara sings with intense, resonant passion, without quite touching on the subtle depths of Julianne Moore in the film. RenĂ©e Fleming (scoring a surprise return to the Met after her last Rosenkavalier) has total poise and charisma as Clarissa, who strives so hard and in vain to do Richard any good. It is sung vividly by Kyle Ketelsen, and all of the supporting roles are heavily voiced.

Captured close-up on the HD Live broadcast (I watched it from the Abbeygate cinema in Bury St Edmunds), directed by Gary Halvorson, these characters hit home: I wonder if this matches the live spaces of the opera? The other question mark that remains is the music of Puts: skilfully eclectic, sometimes cinematic, using mononote ostinatos to link long scenes and give them momentum, it sometimes switches awkwardly towards the ardor of late romanticism. But it attracts attention, down to the last visionary Straussian trio for the three women facing their different futures. This is an important addition to the lyrical repertoire.

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