The Met’s ‘The Hours’ Struggles Under Virginia Woolf’s Shadow

The highly anticipated production of The Hours, featuring Renée Fleming and Kelli O'Hara, is disappointing. The source material overweighs the performance, and the score is inadequate.


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Kelli O’Hara, Renée Fleming, and Joyce DiDonato in ‘The Hours.’ Evan Zimmerman

Stepping out of her London house into a June morning to buy flowers, Clarissa Dalloway, no longer young but still wonderously and at times startlingly alive, thinks, “What a lark! What a plunge.” Thus begins Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf’s 1923 novel that sketches a whole life in a day, a day that can contain lifetimes of layered memories, regrets, and precious, silvery flashes of joy.  The beauty of Woolf’s writing lies in its navigation of the constant, quiet, and seismic emotional shifts that make up being alive.  Michael Cunningham’s 1998 novel The Hours, a Pulitzer-prize winning riff on Woolf that rewrites her work for the AIDS era and explores love, art, suicide, memory and the ties, large and small, that bind these all together, places his Clarissa— now Clarissa Vaughan, but whose friend Richard has for years called “Mrs. Dalloway”—in the West Village, at the close of the century that Woolf had cracked open. She thinks, “What thrill, what a shock, to be alive on a morning in June.” The novel shifts perspectives, from Virginia Woolf, whom we know will eventually die by suicide but for now is struggling to find the opening line for her next novel, to Laura Brown, a housewife and mother whose mysterious dissatisfaction finds an outlet in reading Mrs. Dalloway and kissing her neighbor Kitty, and back to Clarissa Vaughan, an editor who is living with her partner Sally and throwing a party for Richard, a poet who is slowly but surely dying of AIDS and suspects that his recent win of a major poetry prize has more to do with his approaching death than with his work. 

Given that The Hours is both an adaptation itself and has been the subject of a critically acclaimed adaptation in the 2003 film directed by Stephen Daldry and starring Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, and Julianne Moore, composer Kevin Puts and librettist Greg Pierce set an ambitious task for themselves to adapt this tale again for the operatic stage on November 22nd’s ’s Metropolitan Opera premiere of The Hours. They not only had to render the shifting perspectives of both novels into operatic language and to capture the intimacies that define them, but also to justify why opera is the necessary form for such a reimaging. Unfortunately, they did not succeed on either front, instead delivering a frustratingly broad, often tiresome opera that not only failed to capture the spirit of either of their sources, but flattened each into their broadest thematic strokes, only a copy of copy that blurred into indistinctness. 

It’s clear how much The Met wanted this opera to work. They’ve hired three of the most famous and beloved American opera singers—Joyce DiDonato, Renée Fleming, and Kelli O’Hara—to be their stars, and filled out the supporting cast with a diverse set of younger voices as well as some familiar Met faces. The creative team replicates almost exactly that of 2019’s brilliant and buzzy Akhnaten, with Phelim McDermott directing and Tom Pye returning to design costumes and sets. The sharp and resplendent strangeness that made Akhnaten mesmerizing was missing here, as was any striking use of color. The interiors of each woman’s house, while nicely utilizing multiple levels of the stage, looked shabby and plasticky and curiously dingy, even when colorful, while the costumes had none of Pye’s time-bending grandeur. Clarissa Vaughan’s white coat-dress, in addition to confusing the timelines by appearing more 1950s than 1990s, aged the character while also draining Renée Fleming of color. It’s also clear how much of a feminist win the Met thinks The Hours is despite being almost entirely created by men, save for Annie-B Parson’s choreography, which had dancers alternately waving and scattering flowers or laying strewn about the stage like so many corpses after a battle. Troublesome as it is, this fact would matter far less if The Hours were an excellent opera in its own right, or even if its treatment of female characters was more nuanced than other operas by men about women.

While Pierce’s libretto retains the general outline of Cunningham’s novel, thematically this is a very different piece. The libretto has a curious way of actually eliminating nuance; the opera was riddled with changes that worked only to make it more banal and condescending to its audience. It often insisted on laying out the themes in the dialogue, while simultaneously seeming to miss the point of both Woolf’s and Cunningham’s novels. He seems anxious to avoid reproducing the book’s or film’s lines exactly. This anxiety directs him, however, to render many climactic moments in clichés instead. Cutting, say, the moment in which Richard quotes Woolf’s suicide note  (“I don’t think two people could have been happier than we’ve been together”) to Clarissa before he plunges from his apartment window, only to replace it with insulting pablum about how Richard hopes his works will keep other artists alive long enough to write before they, too, inevitably kill themselves, just assassinates the character and introduces a considerably more problematic and self-congratulatory treatment of suicide. 

In addition to the lack of nuance, the libretto magnifies a problem that lurks around the edges of Cunningham’s novel into now-unmissable size: the way it positions queer women only in terms of their relationships to male characters. Pierce’s Clarissa condescendingly refers to her partner as “Silly Sally” (here sung by a sparingly used Denyce Graves) and seems to feel nothing but contempt for her and for anyone who isn’t Richard. Instead of noticing and loving and considering her world, she is distracted and repetitive, only able to wonder whether Richard will remember his party.  Most importantly, it pushes queer women’s experiences to the margins of a story that ostensibly is about those experiences and how they shape the characters’ lives (with and without men).

In all likelihood, audiences saw the first canonically lesbian kiss on the Met opera stage in The Hours. This should feel like a historic moment in representation, but every opening of Der Rosenkavalier contains more true lesbian eroticism than the sexless peck we saw between Sally and Clarissa, and the kiss between Laura and Kitty had none of the breathless revelation it required. Kelli O’Hara just smacked one on Silvia D’Eramo’s Kitty and then spent the rest of the opera mother-shaming herself about how her feelings will affect her son.

Puts’s music did little to help matters, though the composer clearly reveled in the grand opera format. The score spanned a broad array of instruments with allusions to the opera canon and stylistic references from swing and big band. While this variety might suggest considerable musical interest, the score ultimately felt at once excessive and blandly unmemorable. An unnecessary counter-tenor role (though sung by a marvelously flexible John Holiday), four children’s voices and a heavy reliance on the chorus served to overstuff the score while also placing emotional revelations that should have been in the mouths of his central characters elsewhere. The score falls into a familiar trap with contemporary opera: instrumental and orchestrational fireworks, but vocal lines with no drama and plenty of single-pitch declamation.  Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted with at times frantic energy, but even the climactic suicide scene fell flat, the tension leeching out of it when it should have been building. 

To Puts’s credit, his music for Laura, especially when she reads passages from Mrs. Dalloway, was the most affecting, and though Kelli O’Hara is not perfectly suited for contemporary music, these passages allowed for some transcendence to cut through. Vocally, Joyce DiDonato was best suited as awkward genius Virginia Woolf, but Fleming was underserved by the score which only brought out a grating quality from the usually warm and generous soprano. And, sadly, in this opera that is supposedly centered on three women, the most lyrical vocal writing was reserved for the male characters, particularly Richard, sung last night by intense and appropriately self-ironic bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen, who was a vocal standout (William Burden as Richard’s former lover Louis and Sean Panikkar as Leonard Woolf rounded out the male cast). The broadness of both score and libretto only served to argue against the necessity of operatic reimaginings, especially in this era of safe-bet commissions of already successful intellectual property (Marnie was another such example).

In the end, The Hours, despite its insistence on reminding us of Woolf’s famous opening line, “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself,” captured little else of the lark or the plunge that characterized either her work or Cunningham’s. It makes me long for new operas that aren’t merely copies of copies, but are indeed, original.

The Met’s ‘The Hours’ Struggles Under Virginia Woolf’s Shadow