Minnesota Opera’s New Works Initiatives project has a stunning track record of premiere productions, and William Bolcom’s new opera Dinner at Eight, with libretto by Mark Campbell, is the forty-fifth opera in this heritage. Premiered on March 11, 2017, Dinner at Eight employs a charming mixture of American musical theatre and opera. While beautifully sung by many members of the cast, it doesn’t have a dramatic push through the storyline to ratchet up the tension that all involved are trying to produce.
Clearly working within the narrative construct of a countdown to a portentous dinner party, the opera seems to project itself as a dutiful character study of the many intriguing and cunning personalities invited. However, the ending of the opera felt abrupt and surprising. While just looking at the plot on paper suggests that quite a bit has happened, the application on the stage is not as convincing–America in the 1930s is changing dramatically, issues of life and death are approached, and love triangles abound! However, this opera felt stuck telling the backstory while deeply desiring to rush to the following commotion and raucousness of the actual dinner party.
Enchantment follows soprano Mary Dunleavy whenever she graces the stage in this production as Millicent Jordan: the Manhattan socialite desperate to plan the perfect dinner party. A particular highlight of her performance is her “mad scene” at the end of of Act I. She carries the moment with vocal ferocity and hysterical facial and physical expression. She has a knack for an impressive eye twitch while keeping her tone clear and diction focused. Stephen Powell, as Mr. Oliver Jordan, sweetly induces the most pathos from the audience. His arias were the closest moments the opera had to stopping the impervious rush of time.
The polar opposite of the Jordan’s relationship on the stage is reflected in the Packard couple played with sheer delight by Craig Irvin and Susannah Biller. Hard-charging charlatan, Dan Packard has a wonderfully explosive scene with his adulterous, coquettish wife Kitty in which both singers show off their fiery vocalism. Another highlight of the evening was the doctor’s office scene between Andrew Garland as Dr. Joseph Talbot and Adriana Zabala his wife Lucy Talbot. Zabala’s coppery sound lent a deeper twist of the knife to her emotionally wrought musical lines.
To neglect the excellent stage design by Alexander Dodge and lighting design by Robert Wierzel would do a disservice to this production. Like Cubism coupled with Art Deco and met with the movie Inception, the stage provided a wealth of subtextual information to the audience. The grandiose nature of the elongated interior room panels earlier in the opera was juxtaposed later with the city practically closing in on the dinner party guests. There is truly a sense of the lavish interior world of these characters versus the world that is actually squeezing and compressing around them.
This opera is still a success for Minnesota Opera with the understanding that certain stage elements will stabilize and coalesce over time. There are a multitude of laugh out loud moments in this opera, which also strives to approach weightier topics. Those humorous moments are the features of this premiere production that linger in the memory most.