“The Hours” — a new opera based on the 1998 novel and the 2002 film it inspired — features a redoubtable trio of prima donnas. And it was conceived as a vehicle for one of them, the soprano Renée Fleming, who is using it as her return to the Metropolitan Opera after five years.
But on Tuesday, when the Met gave “The Hours” its staged premiere, only one of this trio of stars really shone: the mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, sounding as confident and fresh, as sonorous and subtle, as she ever has in this theater.
In this achingly — almost painfully — pretty, relentlessly stirring opera, with a score by Kevin Puts and a libretto by Greg Pierce, DiDonato plays Virginia Woolf, battling depression as she writes her novel “Mrs. Dalloway” in the early 1920s.
The two other main characters illustrate the impact of that book through the decades. In 1949, Laura Brown (the Broadway veteran Kelli O’Hara), a pregnant Los Angeles homemaker, is reading it as she suffers Woolfian waves of despair. Fifty years after that, the sophisticated Manhattanite book editor Clarissa Vaughan (Fleming), who shares a first name with Woolf’s protagonist, is, like Clarissa Dalloway, preparing a party — this one for her onetime lover and longtime best friend, a renowned poet dying of AIDS.
Michael Cunningham’s novel, Stephen Daldry’s film and the new opera all take us through one modest yet momentous day in the lives of these three women. Cunningham’s deft construction, with its precious pseudo-Woolf prose, discreetly highlights the threads of connection — flashes of the color yellow, degrees of same-sex desire — weaving the stories together.
The film — which starred Meryl Streep as Clarissa, Julianne Moore as Laura, and, in a putty-nosed, Academy Award-winning turn, Nicole Kidman as Virginia — upped the portentousness, not least through Philip Glass’s soundtrack. Gravely impassioned and endlessly undulating, Glass’s score is so closely associated with this material that writing new “Hours” music is, as Puts said in a recent interview in The New York Times, something like writing a “Star Wars” opera without anything by John Williams.
There are streaks of Minimalism in Puts’s watery rippling, as there are throughout his body of work. But though he repeats rhythmic and melodic motifs, the effect is gentler and less chugging than Glass, and — as in “Silent Night” (2012), Puts’s Pulitzer Prize-winning opera about a Christmas cease-fire during World War I — all else is pushed into the background by surging, strings-forward lyricism.
Early in “The Hours,” Puts introduces passing hints of distinctions between the women’s worlds: for 1923, austere piano and a curdled atmosphere of syncopated winds and eerie pricks of strings; for 1949, some period light swing and echoes of the style of cheerful ad jingles. But nearly every scene in the opera eventually gets to the same place musically and dramatically, whipped into soaring emotion. The tear-jerking gets tiring.
Pierce’s libretto artfully brings the women into even closer proximity than in the novel or film, enabling Puts to create, for example, gorgeous close-harmony duets for Virginia and Laura. But an awkward scene with Clarissa at the florist — Mrs. Dalloway, per Woolf’s classic opening line, is buying the flowers herself — doesn’t seem sure whether it is, or should be, comic relief. A late trio for Clarissa; her dying friend, Richard; and Louis, with whom they were enmeshed in a youthful love triangle, goes on far too long.
The choral writing, which starts the opera pretty clearly representing the voices in the characters’ heads, gradually dissolves into a vaguer, more all-purpose texture — and occasionally into stentorian wails, like the villagers’ music in “Peter Grimes.” A vocalizing countertenor (John Holiday), mystifyingly called the Man Under the Arch in the cast list, hovers around, faintly suggesting the angelic.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the Met’s music director, gave the work its premiere in March in concert with the Philadelphia Orchestra, which he also leads, and whose strings blossom in a way that sumptuously rewarded Puts’s score.
But on Tuesday — with Nézet-Séguin making his first appearance at the opera house this season, nearly two months in — the Met’s orchestra brought muscular energy to what could easily turn turgid and syrupy. (The most risible part in Philadelphia, in which a contemporary novelist named, yes, Michael arrives onstage to swear his devotion to Woolf, has thankfully been excised.)
In Tom Pye’s set, the three women’s domestic spaces are realistic islands floating around a bare stage, an efficient solution to a fast-flowing drama. But Phelim McDermott’s production clutters the smooth action with choristers, actors and dancers who, in Annie-B Parson’s dull choreography, sleepwalk, slouch, wield flowers like cheerleader pom-poms, wave pots and pans, slump atop chairs and sprawl over floors.
Denyce Graves, Sean Panikkar and Brandon Cedel bring dignity to the protagonists’ romantic partners; Kathleen Kim has a piquant cameo as the coloratura-wielding florist; and, best of all, Kyle Ketelsen sings the strong-willed, delusional Richard with haunting authority.
O’Hara, her classical technique secure enough to have brought her success at the Met in “The Merry Widow” and “Così Fan Tutte,” is a focused actress — watch the quiet terror of her slow walk back toward her son from center stage — even if her bright, silvery soprano takes on a slight edge at full cry.
But it is hard to focus on anyone else when DiDonato is onstage, often standing magnetically still. Her voice is clear in fast conversation, as she darkly relishes the words. Then, as the lines slow and expand, her tone grows smoky yet grounded, mellow yet potent. She plays Virginia as solemn and severe, but with a dry wit; if anything, she comes off as almost too robust to make paralyzing depression entirely plausible.
DiDonato is a commanding enough singer and presence to render persuasive what had seemed in Philadelphia like bombastic overkill: a booming fantasy of London, a crashing evocation of incapacitating headaches. It’s only at the very top of its range that her voice tightens a bit; all in all, though, she gives a generous, noble portrayal, at its peak in her crushing delivery of lines from Woolf’s suicide note.
The poignancy of the plot is amplified by Fleming, who has returned to the Met’s stage sounding pale: not frail or ugly, but at first almost inaudible and by the end underpowered, a pencil sketch of her former plushness. Having bid farewell to the standard repertory, this diva never wanted to age into opera’s supporting mother characters, and she has the influence to commission works like this, in which she can still be cast as the lead.
But just as Clarissa Vaughan throbs with nostalgia for her life a few decades before, so we listen to Fleming at this point in her career and hear, deep in our ears, her supreme nights in this theater in the 1990s and early 2000s: as Mozart’s Countess, Verdi’s Desdemona, Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, Tchaikovsky’s Tatyana.
And as Strauss’s Marschallin in “Der Rosenkavalier,” in which she made her last staged appearance here in 2017, and whose sublime final trio is rendingly recalled in “The Hours,” as Clarissa, Laura and Virginia at last acknowledge one another, joining in sober then swelling harmony. It’s a superb sequence, a nod to Strauss that has a sweet longing all its own.
“I wanted to make something good, something true,” Richard tells Clarissa near the end of the opera. “It didn’t have to be great.”
That’s a reasonable standard. And, measured against it, Puts and Pierce have succeeded.
Through Dec. 15 at the Metropolitan Opera, Manhattan; metopera.org.