What a desperate time it was for America: 1932, the worst year of the Great Depression. We see the old newsreels with 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 that difficult year of 1932. The classic all-star movie version with Jean Harlow as the not-so-dumb golddigger Kitty Packard came along a year later.
And now, courtesy of Minnesota Opera, we have an opera version with a sparkling, imaginative score by William Bolcom and a deft, astute libretto by Mark Campbell. The show opened Saturday night at the Ordway Music Theater in St. Paul.
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. A closely detailed aerial view of the city is the backdrop; the newsreels 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 and Ginger were to take a 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. Although “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 duet. The Jordans’ daughter, Paula, who is having an affair with a washed-up silent-screen actor, sings a gorgeous ballad in the first act, a lament concerning her rocky romance, the kind of number that used to be called a torch song (“He needs me/Needs me badly”), fervently sung here by Siena Forest.
There are comic moments, to be sure. Bolcom’s chattering woodwinds give those scenes 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, more often than not, is 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 clever and useful — they move the sets around.
The final scene — dinner, at last — though well staged by Zvulun — is muted and uneasy, as it is in the play. We’d like to hear the dinner conversation.
The cast can’t be faulted. They’re outstanding — all singer/actors of high accomplishment: 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 Vance 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 are 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.
Michael Anthony is a Twin Cities classical music critic.