Daldry rounded out his power trio of leads with Meryl Streep (as Clarissa Vaughan, a busy editor in 1990s Manhattan, attempting to throw a party for her erstwhile lover Richard, dying from AIDS) and Julianne Moore (as Laura Brown, an anguished wife and mother contemplating escape from the idyllic Los Angeles suburbs of 1949).
With its built-in trifecta of divas, deep literary roots, vast historical reach, plumbing psychological depth and delicately woven timelines, “The Hours” as an opera was just a matter of time. (Even the original film score by Philip Glass seemed like an associative nudge toward the opera house.)
But sometimes having it all can be more than one needs, as demonstrated by the world premiere at the Metropolitan Opera on Tuesday of “The Hours,” directed by Phelim McDermott (“Akhnaten”) and composed by Kevin Puts to a libretto by Greg Pierce.
Despite strong singing from three superstar leads — soprano Renée Fleming as Clarissa, soprano Kelli O’Hara as Laura and mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato as Virginia — the story feels both overstuffed and undertold.
McDermott’s management of the three timelines is efficient and architecturally sound. Seamless transitions from one era (or side of the stage) to the next are facilitated by gentle vocal overlaps and skillful orchestration. Puts’s music cleverly delineates the sound worlds of each woman, capturing the furrowed angst of Virginia, the illusory glamour of Laura’s picture-perfect domesticity, the busy cosmopolitan din of Clarissa’s day-to-day.
The music is imbued with the sounds of passing time: Clanging clock chimes register the hours going by, and a shimmering sublayer of strings courses below like a river. More than once, Puts seems to revert to the repetitive figures and melodic eddys of Glass’s film score, and it was hard to tell whether they are winks or lapses.
But the subtleties and nuances of Cunningham’s prose and Daldry’s camera, which both offer a sustained gaze into the inner lives of the characters, often feel trampled by McDermott’s production, which is overly busy with sluggishly wheeled-out set pieces, choral mobs and frequently distracting dancers. For the first of its two acts, “The Hours” is an exercise in unchecked maximalism. I fear a little for those going in unfamiliar with the source material: Its triple-vision often resolves into a blur.
Tom Pye’s set designs deploy realist fragments of each woman’s milieu: Clarissa and her live-in lover, Sally (beautifully sung by mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves), prepare for their party in a sleek modern loft. Laura unsuccessfully bakes a birthday cake for her husband in a kitchen lifted from the pages of “Better Homes & Gardens.”
Virginia paces around her room of one’s own, furnished with only a writing desk. We also visit the room at the Normandy Hotel where Laura retreats for the afternoon, as well as poor Richard’s dilapidated apartment, with its papered windows and precarious height above street level.
I often found myself sympathizing with the chorus members, who were blessed with some of Puts’s most compelling music but burdened with constantly assembling and dissembling the set. Only in the second act did “The Hours” attain some of the crucial lightness and delicacy of Cunningham’s telling. A beautiful flashback scene as Clarissa recalls an early visit to Wellfleet with Richard came to life through a single unfurled scrim of fabric. Another second-act stretch found the singers adrift against a black void. In most every case on Tuesday, less was more, but we desperately needed more less.
Those in it strictly for the singing will not leave disappointed. Fleming struggled to be heard through the first act, her voice all but vanishing into the orchestra, attentively conducted by Met music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin. But she dominated the second act, especially in her devastating duet with the unraveling Richard, perched on his windowsill, a star turn for bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen, whose powerful voice expertly captured the character’s fight and frailty.
DiDonato made an uncanny Woolf and is a far stronger actress than I might have guessed. She embodied the author in posture and carriage. Her voice — gleaming, golden, generous, marvelously full — harnessed a raw intensity that felt right. (Especially so during her discomforting burial of a dead bird, as close to a mad scene as we get.)
I was most impressed by O’Hara, an absolutely electric presence onstage, and the most impactful performance of the evening. Her small talk with Kitty (wonderfully sung by Sylvia D’Eramo) over brands of instant coffee intensifies into some of Put’s most rapturous music, and a kiss that sends her spinning.
Special recognition goes to the young Kai Edgar, who was phenomenal as young Richie, and soprano Kathleen Kim, who was a breath of fresh air as both Barbara (the woman at the flower shop) and Mrs. Latch (the babysitter for young Richie while Laura was near unraveling).
Graves and tenor William Burden (as Richard’s former lover Louis) were surprise delights among the strong supporting cast. Countertenor John Holiday gave thrilling vocal turns as a mysterious “Man Under the Arch” and a hotel clerk at the Normandy, though it was nearly impossible to make heads or tails of his ghostly place in the story.
With so much going on, I was surprised to leave feeling like just as much was missing. The strange unspoken tensions between Laura and little Richie, which are so crucial to constructing the second-act twist, were inadequately developed. Older Richard’s storyline, too, felt slightly underexamined, though his final scene brought a chilling silence over the house.
The River Ouse, which seems to deliver us into the opera, never returns. We never see Virginia load her pockets with stones and wander into its depths. Instead, we get a musically beautiful but conceptually confounding finale that I will not spoil but that reminded me of Richard’s anxiety over his own masterpiece, a celebrated novel with a “tacked-on ending.”
At the end of “The Hours,” you will find yourself energized by Puts’s splendid shape-shifting score, or the triple threat of its leads, or the richness of this multilayered narrative. But you might also wonder whether three arcs might have been better served by three acts. After all, there’s only so much time in the day.
The Hours Through Dec. 15 at the Metropolitan Opera, New York. metopera.com.