By Michael Anthony
MINNEAPOLIS — What an agonizing time it was for America — 1932, the worst year of the Great Depression. We see the old news reels: families wandering the streets of Manhattan holding up homemade signs: “Why can’t you give my Dad a job?” “Four children for sale.”
In the penthouses high above the city, things were better, of course, but not much. People were jittery, as if they were walking on thin ice. A prominent socialite, Millicent Jordan, throws a dinner party, and everything goes wrong. The food is burned, the guests of honor cancel, and in short order we’re apprised of two failed marriages among the other guests as well as a business swindle, a fatal illness, one or two cases of serial adultery, and a suicide. Trouble in Paradise.
George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber chronicled these foibles of the rich in the hit play Dinner at Eight, which opened on Broadway in 1932. The classic all-star movie version with Jean Harlow as the not-so-dumb gold digger Kitty Packard came along a year later.
And now, courtesy of Minnesota Opera, we have an operatic version of Dinner at Eight with a sparkling, imaginative score by William Bolcom and a deft, astute libretto by Marc Campbell. It opened on March 11 at the Ordway Music Theater in downtown St. Paul and continues through March 19.
The production, staged with thoughtful flair by Tomer Zvulun and smartly designed by Alexander Dodge makes much of the locale. Manhattan becomes almost a character in the opera. A closely detailed aerial view of the city is the backdrop, the news reels are seen as projections at the start of each act, and the interiors have a chic ’30s-style Art Deco look. It wouldn’t seem odd if Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were to take a quick twirl across the Jordans’ living room.
Typical of Bolcom’s work, the score draws on a wide range of idioms – marches, waltzes, tangos, along with tangy harmonies and atmospheric etches. Though Dinner at Eight is definitely an opera, Bolcom’s music feels in places like a Broadway musical of the early ’30s.
Each of the main characters delivers a strong, self-defining aria or portion of a duet. The Jordans’ daughter, Paula, who is having an affair with a washed-up silent-screen actor, Larry Renault, sings a gorgeous ballad in the first act, a torch song concerning her rocky romance, fervently sung here by Siena Forest.
There are comic moments, to be sure, and Bolcom’s chattering woodwinds give them an extra lift. The solo cornet, playing what sounds like an old Neapolitan folk tune during the Packards’ quarrel, adds a touch of irony. But the tone is often one of sadness and regret, more so than in the play. (The opera is based on the play rather than the movie.) Each of the characters is losing something or afraid of losing something. Bolcom’s subtle orchestration is especially telling in the darker moments — the soft, ominous brass chords leading to Renault’s suicide scene; the sudden trombone solo when Oliver Jordan leaves the doctor’s office, having learned of his fatal heart disease. It’s as if he’s imagining his heart exploding.
The use of minor characters to sing a prologue before each act (“The party goes on/Like it or not”’) is both clever and useful. They push the sets around. The final scene – dinner, at last, well staged by Zvulun – is muted and uneasy, as it is in the play. We’d like to linger awhile and hear the dinner conversation.
Zvulun’s cast couldn’t be faulted. Singer-actors of high accomplishment, they are outstanding: Mary Dunleavy and Stephen Powell as the Jordans; Craig Irvin and Susannah Biller as the Packards; Andrew Garland and Adriana Zabala as Dr. Talbot and his wife; Brenda Harris as Carlotta and Richard Troxell as Larry Renault. Victoria Tzykun designed the plush costumes and Robert Wierzel the lighting. Conductor David Agler paced the show expertly and drew a bright performance from the orchestra.
The opera and the production compose the latest installment in the company’s exemplary New Works Initiative. It is a co-production with the Atlanta Opera and the Wexford Festival in Ireland. Dinner at Eight, it’s worth noting, is Minnesota Opera’s 45th premiere.