The Hours

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” — Henry David Thoreau

Suzanne and I have long been fans of the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD. Today I saw the new opera The Hours, based on the 1998 novel and 2002 movie of the same title. The roles played in the movie by Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, and Julianne Moore, are here sung by Renee Fleming, Joyce DiDonato, and Kelli O’Hara respectively.

The Hours tells three stories at once, the stories of three women in three different locales and time periods who share a common sense of desperation. Virginia Woolf, sung by DiDonato, is struggling to write her novel Mrs. Dalloway. She is wrestling with her inner Monsters, as her husband calls them, and she cannot seem to find an opening line or decide on her ending. Like Mrs. Dalloway, The Hours takes place over a single day — actually three of them, in the three different places and times, but one single day of each woman’s life.

For those who do not know the novel, Mrs. Dalloway’s first name is Clarissa and she is planning a party. This is one of the connections in The Hours, as Renee Fleming’s character, Clarissa Vaughan, is a lesbian editor in 1990s New York planning a party for her “more than best friend” Richard, an author and poet who is dying of AIDS. Richard is getting an award. (“I’m getting an award because I’m dying,” he says.) Richard sometimes teasingly refers to Clarissa as Mrs. Dalloway.

O’Hara sings the role of Laura Brown, a housewife in 1949 Los Angeles. She lives with her husband and son and she has a baby on the way. She escapes her desperate life by reading. At the time we meet her, she is reading Mrs. Dalloway.

The opera weaves the three women’s stories together in a way the novel and movie can’t. There are scenes where we see Laura Brown in LA reading aloud the very words we see Virginia Woolf in 1920s London struggling to write. The staging blends their voices magnificently.

At various points in the opera, Woolf sings that “someone must die by the end of the day.” (Her novel takes place over the course of one day.) Well, by the end of this opera, someone has, and it leads to a surprising connection at the end.

This is one of many places where you get a sense of foreboding and a sense from the score and the libretto that the women are troubled, almost expecting something to happen. This is a good reminder of the power of our thought. And we also get to feel the love and loss in the lives of the three women.

This is a fascinating work. The score is a bit modernist for my taste, but it contributes to the overall picture of these interesting characters. There is an encore showing this coming Wednesday evening at your local movie theater.