“Wonderful” Clarissa Vaughan uses the word “is” a lot. Even though Richard, her friend, tells her that it’s a word he never used in a poem. New opera “The Hours” This show is beautiful in the best old-fashioned style. It was written specifically for a diva. 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.
Oper lovers are often compelled by the urge to see something else. “Tosca” Oder “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. Who knows what? It’s possible she could give new life to the warhorse.
You can find the titles characters here “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. In big arias, they openly talk about their fears and the things that haunt them.
“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 creates an orchestral buffer to stop music breaks after every aria, duet and 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” Its premiere was Tuesday, following a performance by Philadelphia’s Philharmonic last March.
Although modern composers can write well for both the orchestra and the chorus, many do not know how they should write for each individual voice. With such recent works as Mathew Aucoin’s “Eurydice” or Nico Muhly’s “Marnie,” You follow the orchestra in order to keep an eye on it. 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). This is particularly touching, as the woman at the counter, just like many other service workers, came to New York City in order to become an actress or singer. She was eventually a flower seller.
Here and there, admirers of the score for Stephen Daldry’s film version of “The Hours” Philip Glass will be praised. Sometimes, the orchestra and chorus indulge in these signature repetitions but they are not as strong or long-lasting.
John Holiday is a great countertenor who adds to the opera’s haunting atmosphere. Holiday plays various roles in coaxing, preventing, and just watching characters consider suicide.
Pierce is most successful in his piano accompaniments for DiDonato’s Virginia Woolf character. The phenomenal success of “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta” from Puccini’s “La Rondine,” The piano isn’t usually associated with opera. It might be. The strongest of the three star singers here, DiDonato achieves the greatest poignancy in Woolf’s descent into despair. Thanks to his piano, DiDonato is also the most capable.
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. Are Puts trying to imitate Lawrence Welk in this scene?
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. The women even ended “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,” Phelim McDermott is the stage director and employs a small group of dancers. The dancers are present when Laura bakes her cupcake, Richard is on the sofa in his living room, Virginia is trying to write sentences for her novel and Clarissa buying 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.