the Met proves that opera need not 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 City on November 18, 2022 – AFP/Angela Weiss

This is quite something. On the vast spaces of the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Michael Cunningham’s intimate novel, which became a stunning 2002 film by Stephen Daldry, turned 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 weaves them together in a tapestry of love and loss, as three individuals and their partners make their own heartbreaking decisions whether to live or die.

The three stories in the book don’t relate until the very last moment, when it emerges that Laura’s young son has grown up to be Richard, the AIDS victim who chooses death by falling from his New York window (in the most poignant scene of the work). But three separate strands do not make an opera, and the success of this new work is due to the skill with which librettist and composer connect stories with overlapping narratives, using the multi-part ensembles that opera makes possible, underpinned by a superb integrated staging by Phelim McDermott and his designer Tom Pye. Its three domestic settings glide across the stage and are tied together by commentary from a chorus of Greek tragedy and (arguably over-elaborate) choreography by Annie-B Parson.

The attraction of the show, however, are the three singers for whom it was conceived and who interpret it with consummate understanding. Joyce DiDonato has surely done no better than her tortured Virginia Woolf: even without the depiction of her drowning that frames the film, she borders on tragedy with her haunting foreknowledge that someone is going to die. As Laura, on the verge of abandoning her husband and child, Kelli O’Hara sings with intense, resonant passion, without quite touching the subtle depths of Julianne Moore in the film. RenĂ©e Fleming (marking a surprise return to the Met following her latest Rosenkavalier) has total poise and charisma as Clarissa, who tries so hard and futilely to do Richard good. He is vividly sung by Kyle Ketelsen and all supporting roles are heavily cast.

Caught in close-up during 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 is matched in the live spaces of the opera house? The other question mark that remains is the music of Puts: expertly eclectic, sometimes filmic, using single-note ostinatos to string long scenes together and give them momentum, sometimes veering uncomfortably into late-romantic ardor. But it draws attention, right down to the visionary Straussian trio finale for the three women as they grapple with their different futures. This is a significant addition to the operatic repertoire.

The BBC Radio 3 broadcast is available on BBC Sounds until 10 January; for film screenings see metliveinhd.co.uk

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