Wexford Festival Opera 2018 Review: Dinner At Eight

William Bolcom & Mark Campbell’s Opera Receives Hugely Successful Showcase

By Alan Neilson

The Wall Street Crash of 1929 ushered in the Great Depression of the 1930s, which caused poverty, unemployment and social dislocation on a grand scale in industrial economies across the globe. Although its impact on the poor was catastrophic, its effect on rich society was no less devastating; families lost their entire fortune overnight, with suicide often a result. It was also a time for the unscrupulous eagle-eyed chancer to make merry; someone’s misfortune is always some else’s opportunity.

It was during this period that William Bolcom, the American composer, chose to set his new opera, “Dinner at Eight,” based on George Kaufmann and Edna Ferber’s, 1932 Broadway Show of the same name. With his librettist, Mark Campbell, he created a musical drama, in which Millicent Jordan is preparing for a dinner party set in New York’s high society. Unbeknown to her, her husband is very ill, with only a few months to live, and his shipping business is about to go broke.

The drama focuses on the lives of the characters who have been invited to the party, exposing their superficiality, which is, in fact, hiding real pain, their base motivations and their outright hypocrisy, yet at the same time, the work paints a picture of real people struggling with life’s pressures and contradictions.

Remembering the Context

It is important to bear in mind this context when watching the opera, for Campbell’s libretto is very funny and Bolcom’s score is playful and accessible, which can give the inattentive listener the false impression that they are watching a light operetta, a soufflé or a bit of froth served to delight the senses, rather than to tease the brain.

Certainly, it is entertaining and very amusing, but this is dark humor, very dark. Ultimately, there is nothing funny in these events: loss of dignity, suicide, betrayal, impending death and the loss of all that you own. It is the stuff of tragedy.

The director, Tomer Zvulun, aware of the potential misunderstanding, attempted to highlight the darker aspect of the work by using films and photographs from the period, depicting the misery and poverty of the dispossessed, setting them alongside images of American success, such as the iconic Chrysler building.

Bolcom and Campbell managed to create an interesting group of clearly defined dinner guests, who are attending the party for a variety of different reasons, and who have little genuine warmth for each other. Moreover, their lives are entangled in a variety of other darker ways.

The Players

Dan Packard is a nouveau riche cowboy, with terrible manners, who is in the process of bankrupting the host, Oliver Jordan, whilst Dr. Talbot is having an affair with Dan’s wife, the platinum blond, Kitty Packard.

Lucy, Dr. Talbot’s wife, although fully aware of his numerous affairs, is willing to suffer for the sake of appearances and her apparently successful lifestyle.

Carlotta Vance, always so polite and correct, “naively” sells hers shares to protect her own interests and in the process helps bankrupt Oliver Jordan.

Larry Renault is a washed-up film star, who has been invited to make up the numbers and is having an affair with Paula Jordan, unbeknown to her parents, Millicent and Oliver.

Lord and Lady Ferncliffe are the guests of honor, but at the last minute decided to head off to Florida instead. Millicent, herself, is more interested in her social standing than in any of her guests. It is a perfectly designed arrangement and provides the director with ample opportunity to engineer scenes which move slickly between black comedy, light comedy and serious drama.

The sets, designed by Alexander Dodge, and splendidly lit by Robert Wierzel, were fashioned in typical Art Deco style. Millicent’s drawing room was framed with gold and dark red paneling, Oliver’s office used typical furniture designs of the period, Kitty’s boudoir with its large deco mirror and powder-puff décor, all successfully helped to create an ideal and colorful staging. Occasionally, the sets were reminiscent of Edward Hopper’s scenes of isolation and loneliness, most notably in Larry’s suicide scene, in which the dark tones of the room, dominated by a green tiled angular fireplace, a lumpen armchair and a neutral bed perfectly captured his situation.

The costumes, designed by Victoria Tzykun, had a classy contemporary design, aimed at showing off the characters’ fabulous wealth, but also at reflecting the person’s character. Lucy is imprisoned in a formal, severe dark blue suit, with a matching hat, wonderfully summing up her straight-jacketed emotional state. Oliver’s understated office suit, for example, as well as Kitty’s sexy lingerie, and Dan’s expensively brash clothes all perfectly represented their wearers’ character.

Eclectic Musical Style

Bolcom’s music is an eclectic mix of styles, combining many elements, including Broadway and jazz waltz and tango, which is mainly tonal, sometimes atonal, or as David Agler, the festival director, was reported to have observed, “tonal music with a few dirty notes,” with plenty of rhythmic variations to quickly change the direction of the mood.

The musical forms, however, were fairly conventional, comprising arias, and ensemble pieces divided by recitatives. The conductor, Leslie Dala, produced an engaging and balanced reading from the Orchestra of Wexford Festival Opera, which captured the emotional currents and countercurrents of the onstage events.

A Role-Defining Performance

Although the dinner party is the focus of the drama, the opera actually ends before the guests sit down to eat. Its hostess, Millicent Jordan, is the pivotal figure, around which all the figures rotate. The role, therefore, requires a powerful performance from the leading soprano, if the dynamics of the narrative are to hold together. Mary Dunleavy, who created the part in the world premiere at Minnesota Opera, was again parted as Millicent and put in a role-defining performance.

Her singing and acting were both of the highest quality, which she used to uncover the complexities of her character. For Millicent has created a fortress, built upon a subtle understanding of hierarchical mores, and her husband’s wealth.

Over the course of the evening, we watch Millicent’s attempts to defend her fortress, which is threatened by a complex web of social difficulties, such as the cancellation of her guests of honour, the Ferncliffes and, worse still, the disaster of having her special dish, “lobster in aspic” crash to the floor, and having to suffer the shame of serving “spring lamb” instead.

It was all too much for poor Millicent, and in scene six she goes temporarily mad. Dunleavy’s portrayal was ridiculously hysterical, yet totally believable, and encapsulated her ability to combine humor with serious drama in a single action.

Her expressive singing always captured Millicent’s predicament, her piercing top notes, and bright upper register clearly depicting the brittle coating of her personality. It was a truly sparkling performance and one in which Dunleavy coped with the score’s difficult rhythm changes with consummate ease.

In the end, the events of the week eventually become apparent, her fortress has been truly breached, however, she reacts with great fortitude, and calmly asserts that they will get through it all, and no longer looks upon the “spring lamb” with such contempt. Whether this is her demonstrating a resilient side to her nature or simply denial, we can only speculate.

The Rest of the Cast

Her husband, Oliver Jordan, was played by Stephen Powell. His attractively weighted voice added a degree of balance to all the instability and craziness unfolding around him. He characterized his voice with great skill, capturing the deep pain which he is struggling to keep in check, as his health and finances deteriorate to the point of no return.

In many ways, Carlotta Vance, essayed by Brenda Harris, was the most dislikable of all the characters. Also suffering financial hardship, she high-handedly sells off her shares in Oliver Jordan’s company, knowing that it will cause him ruin, yet has no problem swanning into the dinner party, as if all was sweetness and light.

Harris thoroughly convinced in the role, her voice has a rich texture, which is particularly strong in the upper register. Her duet with Oliver Jordan was one of the few really tender moments in the opera, in which reflecting upon the demise their old way of life, they almost end up in each in a romantic embrace, before quickly thinking better of it.

Dan Packard and Kitty Packard were played by Craig Irvin and Susannah Biller. The pair hammed up their parts in a wonderful presentation of a nouveau riche couple; Dan, loud, brash and unsophisticated, despite efforts to appear to the contrary; Kitty, spoilt, crude and desperate for social recognition, which was just never going to happen.

Irvin put in a good performance, his domineering baritone, trampling over the cast, without trouble to his conscience. Biller, looking every inch the spit of Jean Harlow, who was parted in the role for the 1933 film, made an excellent impression. She possesses a bright crystalline soprano, which she employed with a great deal of agility, furnished with a socially unacceptable heavy drawl. The lasting image, however, will be of her lying on the bed, eating chocolates from a large heart-shaped box.

Brett Polegato used his seductive baritone to good effect in his portrayal of the serial adulterer Dr. Joseph Talbot, who at this point is having an affair with Kitty. He possesses a strong voice with a warm timbre, and displayed real skill in producing an expressive, clearly articulated performance. Polegato was so successful at bringing Joseph alive, that one could only hope that Kitty’s husband would discover the affair and administer a good beating.

Sharon Carty essayed the role of Joseph Talbot’s emotionally castrated wife, Lucy Talbot. In certain aspects, she is similar to Millicent, in striving to create her own fortress of social impregnability, although unlike Millicent, she is beset with few illusions. To this end, she is prepared to turn a blind eye to her husband’s philandering, as a price worth paying. Despite this, she claims to love her him, and wonders why he does not see her in the way he sees other women.

Carty essayed the role with great skill, highlighting the ambiguities in Lucy’s character – her internal feelings are far from the cold exterior she presents to the word. In her aria, accompanied by the sultry sound of the orchestra, Carty’s subtle shading and carefully accented vocal line brought depth and ambiguity to her character, exposing the conflict between the straight-laced woman she likes to present, and the dissatisfied and sexually unfulfilled woman she really feels herself to be. Moreover, it was sung with a precise and clear diction. Her acting was also beautifully nuanced.

Larry Renault is a washed-up movie star, who is drinking himself to death. Realizing the game is up after being evicted from the hotel, he turns on the gas tap, sits back in his chair and waits for the end. The role was given a strong and compelling performance by Richard Cox. To the orchestra’s mocking voice, he sang “Back on top” in which, with hollow confidence, he sings about returning to the big time, his powerful and expressive tenor capturing his (un)certainty of returning to the top.

Millicent and Oliver’s daughter, Paula Jordan, was a fairly flatly-drawn character. The soprano, Gemma Summerfield nevertheless, made a decent attempt at injecting some interest into the role and made the most of her Act one aria about her troubled love-life, in which she showed off her solid technique and the rich colors of her vocal palette.

In the minor role of Larry’s agent, Max Kane, Ashley Mercer made an excellent impression. Looking every bit like an untrustworthy conman, he showed real concern over Larry’s situation, at least until he realized there was nothing left in it for himself. His singing displayed quality, which he used to create a convincing portrait of his character.

But what happens next? Will Oliver die? Will Lucy remain with her husband? Will Millicent really be able to tolerate “spring lamb” for very long? It is impossible to say.

The audience is left to speculate. Whatever happens, “Dinner at Eight” proved itself to be an excellent work. Bolcom’s music not only convinced in its own right, but it had a dramatic momentum which displayed a deep understanding of the theatre. It was never one-paced; the well-crafted libretto, allied to the varied musical styles, sparkling orchestration, quicksilver variations in rhythm and tempo, and the immediate accessible melodies of the score, ensured it was a very well-received production.


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