During his tenure Wexford’s artistic director David Agler has made a feature of American operas, with somewhat mixed results. The latest is the work of 80-year-old William Bolcom, receiving its European premiere at this year’s event.
Dinner at Eight derives from a 1932 play by George S Kaufman and Edna Ferber, quickly turned into a much admired Hollywood movie directed by George Cukor. Set during the Depression, the storyline shows members of New York’s upper crust themselves suffering problems either financial, amatory, or career or health based, not quite all of them surviving to attend socialite Millicent Jordan’s dinner party – itself fraught with disaster in its preparation, and which is just about to begin when the curtain falls at the end of the piece.
Mark Campbell’s surefooted libretto sticks closely to its source and is skilful in identifying the characters and clarifying the twists and turns of the wryly comic narrative.
Despite its technical assurance – every word cuts through his light and effective scoring –Bolcom’s score is disappointing. Beyond its clever use of parody, pastiche, and the odd knowing quotation, it remains largely unmemorable, its lack of musical substance leaving one to wonder whether the material might have been better left as it was, rather than having music grafted onto it.
But Tomer Zvulun’s stylish production with smart and sassy period designs by Alexander Dodge and Victoria Tzykun show it to its best advantage in a staging unveiled at the work’s premiere in Minnesota last year.
Members of a uniformly strong ensemble, outstanding are Mary Dunleavy as harassed hostess Millicent Jordan, Stephen Powell as her ailing husband, Brenda Harris as larger-than-life actress Carlotta Vance and Susannah Biller in the (in the movie) Jean Harlow role of Kitty Pickard. Agler himself conducts a spic and span performance.