Wexford’s European Premiere of William Bolcom’s Dinner at Eight

23/10/2018

Wexford Festival Opera 2018 [2] – William Bolcom, Dinner at Eight:  Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Wexford Festival Opera / David Agler (conductor), National Opera House, Wexford, 20.10.2018. (RB)

Dinner at Eight (c) Clive Barda

Cast:

Millicent Jordan – Mary Dunleavy
Oliver Jordan – Stephen Powell
Paula Jordan – Gemma Summerfield
Carlotta Vance – Brenda Harris
Dan Packard – Craig Irvin
Kitty Packard – Susannah Biller
Lucy Talbot – Sharon Carty
Larry Renault – Richard Cox
Dr Joseph Talbot – Brett Polegato
Max Kane – Ashley Mercer
Gustave – Sheldon Baxter
Miss Copeland – Maria Hughes
Tina – Laura Margaret Smith
Miss Alden – Gabrielle Dundon
Eddie – Ranald McCusker
Mr Hatfield – Henry Grant Kerswell
Zoltán – Filimidh Hunan

Production:

Director – Tomer Zvulun
Set Designer – Alexander Dodge
Costume Designer – Victoria Tzykun
Lighting Designer – Robert Wiertel
Stage Manager – Theresa Tsang
Associate Director – David Toro

Wexford Festival Opera have an impressive track record of presenting new and emerging works to the world. This year’s Festival has kept up with this time-honoured tradition by presenting us with the European premiere of William Bolcom’s Dinner at Eight. Bolcom’s opera was first performed by Minnesota Opera in March 2017 and it is a joint production between Wexford, Minnesota and Atlanta Operas.

Dinner at Eight began life as a play written by Gorge Kaufman and Edna Ferber and it was first performed on Broadway in 1932. Following a successful run, a film version was released by MGM some ten months later. George Cukor directed a starry cast including the then relatively unknown Jean Harlow. The film version softened the impact of the play, removed some racial epithets and depicted some of the characters slightly differently. It was well received and many critics judged it superior to the play. Woody Allen is a long time Kaufman admirer and wrote: ‘he, more than anyone, seemed to grasp how phoney the world and its pompous inhabitant were’.

Bolcom and his librettist, Mark Campbell, took the play rather than the film as their source as they found it more truthful. The story revolves around a group of wealthy Manhattanites in the period immediately after the Wall Street Crash. Millicent Jordan and her husband Oliver want to arrange a lavish dinner party and to invite a number of well-heeled acquaintances. We get to meet the invitees and learn of their financial-, health-, career- and alcohol-related problems as well as their marital infidelities. There are hiccups with the dinner party preparations while many of the guests encounter significant setbacks in their personal lives. Larry Renault is perhaps the most affected as he is left destitute and homeless and commits suicide. The remaining guests arrive at the party and the opera ends on a subdued note with the guests carrying on as before in spite of their travails.

Bolcom uses an eclectic range of styles in his score, including Broadway musical numbers, jazz, blues and modernist vocal lines. The work is essentially a hybrid, part Broadway musical and part opera. As the opera progresses, Bolcom gives all the main characters arias which are tightly constructed. The vocal writing is intriguing and some of the entries, such as in Millicent’s final scene in Act I, are in very high tessitura. I found the music engaging although not particularly memorable and I was not convinced that the fusion of different styles worked. The opera also seemed to run out of steam in Act II and the low-key approach to the final scene was not entirely satisfactory: the music petered out rather than working to a climax.

There was much to admire in Tomer Zvulun’s production and the sets and costumes were extremely impressive. The opera opened like an MGM black and white movie with a frame being projected on to a screen and the title appearing in bold letters. There were then a series of visually sumptuous black and white images giving us a bird’s eye view of Manhattan. The chorus appeared in an assortment of period costumes and sang an exhilarating Broadway number. As we moved into the opening scene, Alexander Dodge’s classy Art Deco sets came to the fore and we saw apartment interiors descending from the ceiling or being wheeled on to the stage. Victoria Tzykun’s tasteful costumes completed the sumptuous period tableaux.

The performers did an excellent job throughout and I was particularly impressed with the clarity of the diction and the shaping and phrasing of Bolcom’s vocal lines. The standout performance of the evening was Mary Dunleavy in the role of Millicent Jordan. Her vocal lines were delivered with power and dynamism and the scene at the end of Act I where she complained about the lobster in aspic being dropped was a tour de force. I was also very impressed with Richard Cox in the role of Larry Renault. He brought a rich tone and rhythmic dynamism to his aria and he portrayed the desperation of the character well.

Stephen Powell gave a very sympathetic portrayal of Oliver Jordan who finds out that he has only weeks to live but keeps it to himself. His singing was smooth and well executed and he was at his most impressive in the duet with Brenda Harris’s Carlotta. Harris sang with enormous assurance and she brought a rich palette of tone colours to the role. Craig Irvin’s Dan Packard was a highly driven, unsentimental career animal and his singing was robust and virile. Susannah Biller brought the airhead Lucy Packard winningly to life as she rolled around in bed with her enormous box of chocolates.

David Agler and the Orchestra of the Wexford Festival Opera were on superb form. They brought rhythmic energy and rich colouring to the jazzy score and they captured the 1930’s aesthetic to perfection. Agler kept things moving along at a brisk pace while allowing the characters space for reflection. The viola and flute solos were performed beautifully and the balance between the orchestra and performers was spot on.

Overall, this was a first-rate production by Wexford Festival Opera and the singing and playing were for the most part superb. However, Bolcom’s mixture of musical styles did not entirely work for me, the musical ideas were too generalised, and the quality of the opera was varied with the second half being significantly weaker than the first.

Robert Beattie             

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