Against the backdrop of a stylized topographic cityscape, seven characters step forward and sing a rousing opening number, “The Party Goes On,” accompanied by images of job lines, Hoovervilles, and soup kitchens.
It’s the prologue to Dinner at Eight, based on the successful 1932 play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber that went on to enjoy even greater success as a film directed by George Cukor, starring Billie Burke and Jean Harlow. The opera, with a score by William Bolcom and libretto by Mark Campbell, premiered on Saturday, presented by Minnesota Opera, the latest alum from its New Works Initiative.
The plot hardly seems operatic, even by comic standards. In the depths of the Depression, a lavish dinner party where everything goes wrong is the setup for Kaufman and Ferber to skewer the pretensions of the rich, the famous, and parvenus—stock characters all. The guests of honor are visiting British nobility and the six additional guests are—of course—linked by romantic or business ties. While dinner plans rapidly go south, we watch the characters’ back stories and uncertain futures play out until almost everyone sits down for the repast.
No, it’s not a strong comic property (Kaufman and Ferber wrote two other comedies with longer shelf lives: The Royal Family and Stage Door), but Bolcom clearly saw Dinner at Eight as a chance to express his deep affection for American music and particularly American musical theater. Mark Campbell proved the ideal choice to strengthen the plot’s aging bones.
Campbell does a brilliant job giving focus to the story, beefing up characters, eliminating minor roles and subplots. The prologue before each act at first struck me as jarring but when I realized it’s sung by secondary characters who are basically the scut workers, the prologue becomes an ironic counterpoint to the lifestyles of the rich and scheming.
William Bolcom is a composer who defies categorization, and the extraordinary range of his music reflects a love for the human voice—no wonder, since he’s married to the marvelous mezzo Joan Morris. McTeague and A View From the Bridge are performed internationally, the Cabaret Songs are standard repertoire and his magnum opus Songs of Innocence and Experience is a masterpiece. If Dinner at Eight doesn’t achieve the level of his previous works, the score is a lively, often heartfelt homage to Broadway with more than passing references to Stravinsky, and marvelously orchestrated.
As the opera opens, socialite Millicent Jordan receives the glorious news that a British duke and duchess have accepted her invitation for dinner at eight and now she must come up with the perfect guest list. Her husband Oliver runs a shipping company that we later discover is on the verge of bankruptcy, and their daughter Paula is engaged but secretly in love with the washed-out actor Larry Renault.
He’s on the invitation list, along with serial philanderer Dr. Joe Talbot and his long-suffering wife Lucy, Carlotta Vance, another fading theatrical legend, Dan Packard, the 1930s cowboy version of Gordon Gecko, and his wife Kitty, who’s having an affair with Joe Talbot.
Everyone has an arietta but there’s simply not enough substance to generates operatic moments—with one exception. The actor Larry Renault’s anguish as his career dissolves is masterfully conveyed, thanks to a moving performance by tenor Richard Troxell. But I kept wanting more from everyone else—and there simply isn’t any more in the material.
But if you’re staging an opera that’s about style as opposed to substance, then you’d better have a damned stylish production and fortunately, Minnesota Opera and co-producers Wexford Festival Opera and Atlanta Opera enhanced the Broadway-tinged score with witty staging, excellent performances and stunning production set and costume designs.
Mary Dunleavy’s Millicent Jordan is hauteur verging on a nervous breakdown. She exults in the choice of lobster in aspic and hurtles into crazed despair when the aspic collapses—along with everything else. Baritone Stephen Powell brings a genuine warmth to the role of her husband Oliver. Craig Irvin perfectly embodies the swaggering conman Dan Packard, Susannah Billard’s shrewish Kitty recalls Jean Harlow and omigod, can she wear a pink peignoir.
As Dr. Talbot, Andrew Garland’s deadpan sensibility adds poignancy to his brief soliloquy, but Adriana Zabala steals the show with Lucy Talbot’s smoky cabaret blues arietta. Brenda Harris does a great comic turn as the aging actress Carlotta Vance and as noted above, Troxell lucked out with the one sympathetic character.
Alexander Dodge’s set designs are marvels of ingenuity, allowing the action to flow cinematically with set pieces that are both minimal and visually lavish. Those panels with topographic blocks easily morph from cityscape to apartment or hotel interiors. (The opening sequence reminded me of Robert Wise’s opening for the film version of West Side Story.) Kitty’s bedroom was my undisputed favorite set: a high platform with an enormous bed, a vanity and an equally large mirror frame.
Victoria Tzykun’s gorgeous costumes capture the period’s glossy glamor and fit every performer beautifully.
Director Tomer Zvulun’s witty staging brought out the comic gifts in each singer, no small task. A shrug from Dunleavy, a glance from Garland, a shriek from Billard never verged on slapstick and got huge laughs.
Bolcolm’s score had an ideal performance from the orchestra under the direction of David Agler, contrasting Broadway brashness with those complex Stravinsky-esque tonalities.
Even if it wasn’t perfect, it was enjoyable. There are ample reasons why Dinner at Eight is rarely revived—its most recent appearance was in 2002 with Christine Ebersole and Marian Seldes in the cast. I waited until after I saw the opera to read the play and I could barely get through it. As a comedy of manners, this isn’t Noel Coward. But Bolcolm and Campbell’s version renders a valid and lavish incarnation with well-deserved laughs.
And molti bravi to Minnesota Opera for continuing to support new American opera through New Works Initiative.
Photo: Cory Weaver