Dinner at Eight, William Bolcom and librettist Mark Campbell's 2017 opera, had its European première at Wexford Festival Opera on Saturday under conductor David Agler. The opera is based on the 1932 play by George S Kaufman and Edna Ferber, in turn adapted into a movie by George Cukor (1933). Set in American Depression New York, Millicent Jordan (Mary Dunleavy) is organising a society dinner for a couple from the English aristocracy. While she makes all the arrangements and invitations, we get a glimpse into the lives and troubles of each of her invitees.

<i>Dinner at Eight</i> © Clive Barda
Dinner at Eight
© Clive Barda

Musically, the work blurs the lines between opera and musical theatre; we hear jazz in the score, and more than an echo of Thomas Adès, especially in the vocal lines of the recitatives.

The visual element of Tomer Zvulun's production is striking and leaves absolutely nothing to be desired: from the sumptuous and glitzy costumes by Victoria Tzykun, to the grand-scale, art deco inspired sets by Alexander Dodge, to the beautiful lighting by Robert Wierzel. Zvulun’s direction is flawless, and everything on stage moves smoothly.

Sharon Carty (Lucy Talbot) © Clive Barda
Sharon Carty (Lucy Talbot)
© Clive Barda

Hints to the cinematic past of the story are peppered throughout, from the opening featuring period black and white pictures and the projection of the opera’s title beautifully overlayed on stage like a silent movie title, to the clever lighting often creating silhouettes, to the music itself. Bolcom's score is cinematic to a very high degree, both in the sense that it recalls old movies scores and that it underlines the action with very descriptive passages.

The cast is mostly that of the original Minnesota Opera production, with some roles taken by Irish or British singers, among whom Irish mezzo-soprano Sharon Carty (the betrayed wife Lucy Talbot) stands out. American soprano Mary Dunleavy is undoubtedly the star of the show in role of the “vapid” but adorable hostess Millicent Jordan; both her voice and her assured acting left a lasting impression and created great hilarity on stage. Stephen Powell displayed a nice baritone and convinced as her husband, Oliver Jordan, troubled by health and financial issues. Brenda Harris also contributed greatly to the ensemble with her amusing depiction of the destitute Carlotta Vance.

Soprano Susannah Biller was irresistible as Kitty Packard (the role that was played by Jean Harlow in the movie), the airhead and unfaithful wife of Dan Packard (tenor Craig Irvin), wearing frilly dressing gowns all day and eating chocolates in bed from a huge, heart-shaped box in her moments of frustrations.

Craig Irvin (Dan Packard) and Susannah Billar (Kitty Packard) © Clive Barda
Craig Irvin (Dan Packard) and Susannah Billar (Kitty Packard)
© Clive Barda

And that’s the women who steal the show. Their vanities and vain preoccupations are exposed for everybody’s entertainment, but not too much frowned upon by the authors; instead, they are told about with a sympathetic and complicit eye. One of the best moments in the show is about menu planning with “lobster in aspic” as the centerpiece: the most virtuosic vocal coloratura of the opera is comically dedicated to this crustacean.

While Campbell’s libretto shows a marked narrative and verbal sharpness, Bolcom’s score doesn’t manage to lift from the page and go beyond an entertaining but ephemeral pastiche. The happiest musical moments are the choruses starting each of the two acts which, however, have the effect of creating an anticlimax. There is a sense of something lacking in the work, exaggerated by the sumptuousness of the sets and costumes; like the promise of something wonderful that didn’t, in the end, materialise. 

***11