Kevin Puts’ The Hours has arrived at the Met. It was a Gala Premiere, which means dinner jackets and flashy gowns were very much in evidence. And let’s face it, the fact that it was super-soprano Renée Fleming’s return to the stage seemed enough reason for a special evening. But alongside her was the marvelous Kelli O’Hara, perhaps better known as a Broadway star, and the epic Joyce DiDonato, who seems unable to bore or fail. The opera is about three women in different places in different time periods, their stories tied together in one way or another by Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. Their music establishes both time and place. 

Joyce DiDonato (Virginia Woolf)
© Evan Zimmerman | Met Opera

All three women are unfulfilled and deeply unhappy. Fleming’s Clarissa exists in the 1980s, as she and her partner, Sally, prepare to celebrate her ex-lover Richard’s birthday and to celebrate his winning a prestigious poetry prize. Coloring the happy event darkly is the fact that Richard is dying of AIDS, which Clarissa seems unready to accept. In 1950s California, Laura, who has been reading Mrs Dalloway, dreads going downstairs to her husband and son, but when she does, she begins to bake her husband a birthday cake. Outwardly merry, she’s actually tormented by anxieties and fears. Later, we will see her in a hotel room with a bottle of pills and a copy of Mrs Dalloway. The third woman is Virginia Woolf herself (in the 1920s), an éminence grise in a dowdy dress. She is having trouble writing Mrs Dalloway, depressed by thoughts of noisy London and the “lifeless” suburb she lives in, and has a suicidal foreshadowing.

Kelli O'Hara (Laura Brown)
© Evan Zimmerman | Met Opera

That might seem to be enough of a road map, but it’s a very winding road onstage, particularly when you know that Greg Pierce’s fine libretto, like Michael Cunningham’s novel, does not present the stories consecutively, but rather almost all at once, overlapping a few moments here and a few there. Tom Pye’s fluid sets, evocative of each era but simple, glide in and out and interrupt each previous story in an almost stream-of consciousness manner. When he introduces a floating sheet and projections for a beach scene, the effect is truly striking. Phelim McDermott’s crystal-clear direction keeps the integrity of each character and locale. Bruno Poet’s lighting is soft and elegant for the “perfect” Clarissa and her flowers; jolly, cruelly bright '50s yellow for Laura’s kitchen, and a sort of veil of grays and browns for Virginia. Dancers are frequently employed to express what may be going on in the women’s minds: their presence should have been cut by half.

Kathleen Kim (Barbara) and Renée Fleming (Clarissa Vaughan)
© Evan Zimmerman | Met Opera

But the whole affair seems somehow swollen. The first act – 75 minutes – gives fine specifics of the women’s predicaments and psyches; the music can be nervous or lushly grand. Puts can write some of the most gorgeous poetic music around. The opening of both acts features a sort of floating sensation of undulating strings and high, off-stage voices: the effect is ravishing. Stephen Daldry's film was scored brilliantly by Philip Glass; Puts seems to be avoiding minimalism, but in the 60-minute Act 2, repetition sneaks in, offering the daily lives a humdrum or propulsive quality. It is most welcome. But the libretto and music seem to want to wrap things up too tidily, so that Richard’s suicide is the emotional climax. Then Laura decides to go home. And Virginia, while burying a dead bird, is clearly going slowly mad. We do not see her suicide. 

Kelli O'Hara (Laura Brown), Renée Fleming (Clarissa Vaughan) and Joyce DiDonato (Virginia Woolf)
© Evan Zimmerman | Met Opera

In the short finale, the three women meet in some transcendent time and place and briefly hear each other’s words: I think that this is supposed to comfort the listener, but it seemed perfunctory. If one was hoping for something as musically transcendent as the final trio from Rosenkavalier, one was disappointed.

Ah, the women. Fleming seemed reticent at first, and her voice, still with sheen, did not carry. The scene of Richard’s suicide found her in fine form, her innate dignity shining through. O’Hara, in a half-deadly, half-clichéd role, was breathtaking, her voice clear as a bell, her acting filled with self-doubt and confusion. The gravitas of DiDonato was arresting. Looking like a premonition of death itself, as if she truly was the depressed Woolf, Puts' music lay in the perfect part of her voice. 

Kyle Ketelsen (Richard) and Renée Fleming (Clarissa Vaughan)
© Evan Zimmerman | Met Opera

The supporting cast truly supported: Kyle Ketelsen (Richard) was fierce in his dreadful state; Denyce Graves, (Sally, Clarissa’s lover) was very impressive; Kathleen Kim’s perky, staccati-filled florist brightened the scene; Sean Panikkar (Leonard Woolf) supported as best he could; and John Holiday as the singing man under the arch and later, as a hotel clerk, offered super countertenor tone. But what did his characters stand for? Death? Hope?

Yannick Nézét-Seguin, finally on the Met podium two months into the season, had the complete scope of the show in his baton and the Met Orchestra, of course, played gorgeously. 

The novel and the movie left one emotionally drained. At the Met, the audience looked relieved. The work should be heard again to be properly judged: but will it fly as a repertory staple and does anyone want to see it again? Is it possible to have a minor success on every level?