There’s a moment in the second act of “The Hours,” the Metropolitan Opera’s superb new offering by composer Kevin Puts, in which Clarissa Vaughan (Renée Fleming) is prompted to reflect. In conversation with an old friend named Louis (William Burden), she’s reminded of a single summer by the beach, long enough ago to have begun to slip into a sort of personal lore, the kind of thing one can only believe happened to oneself when an intimate describes it once more. Behind her falls a curtain, onto which is projected images suggestive of sun and sand and freedom; she’s flanked by Louis and by Richard (Kyle Ketelsen), two gay men with whom she experienced a sort of love triangle. Clarissa is warmed by the recollection of all of this potential, the life she had ahead of her; suddenly, the bubble of nostalgia is punctured. The curtain falls to the floor with an undignified flounce. Clarissa is alone again.
Even those unfamiliar with the source material — Michael Cunningham’s 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, followed by a 2002 film adaptation — will have come to know Clarissa Vaughan, by this point, quite well, and to understand why this reverie is out of character. As played by Fleming, Clarissa is a pragmatist, all business; Fleming’s vocal performance is gorgeous, and shot through with the bustling sense that Clarissa is rushing to the next task, the next note. With her wife (Denyce Graves, all marvelous warmth to counter Clarissa’s abruptness) she is planning a party, just as is the protagonist of “Mrs. Dalloway,” a novel that Virginia Woolf (Joyce DiDonato) is writing in another section of the opera. Between the two women in time lies — quite literally — Laura Brown (Kelli O’Hara), who prevaricates to her small child about the day they were meant to spend together so that she may crawl, alone, into a hotel bed, read “Mrs. Dalloway,” and contemplate whether or not to end her life. This production, which opened Nov. 22 and which will be playing in movie theaters as a Fathom Event, stuns in the way it brings these disparate, desperate characters together. And it’s the great achievement of Puts’ “The Hours” and of director Phelim McDermott that, on a stage the size of the Met’s, it communicates intimate spiraling emotional journeys with the subtle, deft texture of thought and of memory.
O’Hara, radiantly keening for the woman that Laura fears she cannot become, delivers a remarkable performance. But as in the film, which won Nicole Kidman her Oscar for her work as the doomed novelist, it’s Woolf who’ll make you swoon. DiDonato, an exceptional talent both as singer and actor, has the difficult tasks, first, of rendering the process of thinking through writing and, then, of conveying the psyche of a woman who cannot trust her thoughts when not writing. DiDonato grabs onto the part with both hands, conveying Woolf’s frustrations at being interrupted in her work as the anger of a woman who risks getting the bends every time she returns to reality.
The libretto, by Greg Pierce, does an elegant job at conveying the contours of the story without representing every detail. Intriguingly, Clarissa’s daughter is written out of the story here, and Clarissa’s own central struggle is her doubt over whether or not to bring a child into the world — a change that amplifies the contrasts, and the similarities, between her and unhappy mother Laura. Such concordances are nothing new for “The Hours,” whose novel and film versions draw connections between all three women; what is new is the direct counterpoint, in which the women share physical space. The set design, by Tom Pye, juxtaposes the women against each other, as when Laura, in a hotel room elevated above the stage, reads the very words Virginia is writing, as she writes them at ground level. The power of the novelist has rarely felt greater, nor has the sense of intimacy enjoyed by the truly devoted reader.
Woolf’s words live on through the generations, and the concerns and troubled thoughts of women echo, too, no matter how much progress seems to be made in the world outside Virginia, Laura, and Clarissa’s minds. This iteration of the story’s success stems from what it is able to accomplish when stepping somewhat beyond the Woolfian tools of conjuring the specific and real texture of daily life. As on page and film, we focus on moments of great import within single days lived by three women. But here, we are moved through time by a chorus that softens transitions. Their presence, too, lends the sense of the interior life as inherently important, for it is worthy of close observation, even when we’re alone with our thoughts.
The mere fact of this opera’s existence does an interesting thing: It cements “The Hours” as a foundational piece of contemporary art. The word “canon” is loaded, but say this much: Cunningham’s novel, so seemingly rigid in its format and structure, has proven itself to be mutable enough in its concerns and rock-solid enough in its characterizations to nourish both a modern-classic film and a genuinely impressive opera, both of which work entirely on their own terms.
At the Met, those terms include using the stage as a sort of gathering-place, an arena with its own rules. Cunningham and film director Stephen Daldry chose only to suggest the connections between the women, up until the moment when an aged Laura finally joins Clarissa; in Puts and Pierce’s telling, the women join together as a triad, sharing a secret understanding of what each has been through, what each day has been like.
Cunningham invented the women (well, two of three), but the way their rhythms thrum against each other nearly a quarter-century after the novel feel, now, timeless. Virginia ultimately could not live in the world; Laura chose to remain, but on independent terms that severed her from her family; Clarissa mastered the small things but could not bear the thought of bringing new life into a world she privately despised. All of this pain washes around the three women we’ve been following through this story, and washes away. They sing to each other a consoling thought: “Here is the world and you live in it, and you try to be…” What they’ve tried to be goes unsaid — perhaps it’s a list too long to accommodate, or perhaps it just exists beyond words. The music does the job instead, soaring as the three conclude, “And you try / And you try / And you… / Try.” Woolf, and Cunningham, would likely be proud: It’s the whole of this challenging, painful, ultimately transcendent life, told in a single moment.