When the Metropolitan Opera appointed Yannick Nézet-Séguin music director in 2016, a tantalizing prospect emerged: the possibility of previewing New York–bound new works with the Philadelphia Orchestra, which he also leads. That collaboration finally came to fruition with the world premiere on Friday of Kevin Puts and Greg Pierce’s The Hours. Adapted from Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, it arrives at the Met later this year; Philadelphia audiences heard the full score, with many of the principal singers offering an early look at their interpretations.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin and cast of The Hours
© Jessica Griffin

Puts and Pierce must contend not only with Cunningham’s meticulously orchestrated novel, which weaves together the lives of three brilliant, troubled women, but with Stephen Daldry’s celebrated screen adaptation from 2002, which bears into the souls of its complicated characters in the very specific ways a film can, and one of its best assets is a haunting Philip Glass score that washes over the shifting scenes with slashing psychological dread. During intermission, I overheard many attendees remembering Glass’ soundtrack fondly.

Puts creates his own unique sound world, for better or worse. The musical elements seem especially tailored to what the Philadelphia Orchestra does best, with masses of shimmering strings and woodwind triplets that create a hypnotic, unified aura. This suits a dramatic story that frequently shifts in time, from the 1920s English countryside to postwar Los Angeles and contemporary New York City. Occasionally, the music seems to purposely overwhelm the soloists in the middle of a vocal line. It makes a certain dramaturgical sense when you consider that at least three of the main characters attempt suicide. In these moments, the score becomes the enveloping embrace of death.

Other ideas falter – or at least don’t feel fully fleshed out yet. Puts introduces the supposedly happy suburban existence of Laura Brown with strains of swing pastiche that mimic 1940s big band music, but at no other time does he reach for verisimilitude. Percussive elements often put too fine a moment on the characters’ roiling emotions, as when the failure of a birthday cake to rise is punctuated with military drums. The score utilizes a small mixed chorus, which presents the characters’ strained psyches too nakedly. Whether chanting ancient Greek or fragments of the famous opening line from Mrs Dalloway, it intrudes on the work’s chamber-like atmosphere, despite the finely calibrated efforts of the Philadelphia Symphonic Choir.

Nézet-Séguin paced the performance with his usual attention to detail, although balances between singers and the orchestra were not ideally realized on opening night. I imagine this will be less noticeable at a more voice-friendly house like the Met. Yet with eight months before the first fully staged outing, both Renée Fleming (Clarissa Vaughan) and Kelli O’Hara (Laura Brown) are already delivering spectacularly realized interpretations that extend far beyond the usual parameters of operatic acting.

Fleming injected a fair amount of flint into her customary warmth, portraying a woman who allows herself to believe, however fleetingly, that playing the gracious hostess might save the life of her beloved friend Richard, who is dying of AIDS. As she prepares a party for him to receive a prestigious literary award, she spirals through doubt and anxiety, which Fleming communicated with subtle word painting and changes in body language. Clarissa’s music is well-suited to her still-astonishing vocal capacities, showing off her chiffon-like upper register and wonderfully creamy lower end, although some middle-voiced passages emerged dry.

O’Hara vividly projected emotional darkness beneath her sunshine-dappled lyric soprano. Laura also believes, like Clarissa, that putting on the right face can change her circumstances, although O’Hara lets the façade drop with knowing authority, even as she mimics the life of a perfect housewife. Bass-baritone Brandon Cedel was heartbreaking as her clueless husband; boy soprano Jonah Serotta wise beyond his years as her knowing young son.

Mezzo Jennifer Johnson Cano and tenor Jamez McCorkle brought distinguished voices and subtle acting to Virginia and Leonard Woolf, although the Bloomsbury aspect of the story is the least integrated. In general, Pierce’s libretto lacks the literate poetry of the source novel, and he often struggles to converge the three storylines. A fully realized staging might help with cohesiveness, and Pierce’s stage directions, which were projected along with the text, were appropriately evocative.

The large supporting cast was uniformly strong, with particularly robust singing from baritone Brett Polegato as Richard and tenor William Burden as Louis, his former lover. With Fleming, they formed a trio in the second act that flashed back to a hedonistic summer of self-discovery on Cape Cod. With no scenery or props, they transported the listener to a sandy beach thirty years in the past, as age washed off their faces and left nothing but the spark of young adulthood behind. In an evening of admirable but disjointed storytelling, it was a perfectly realized moment.