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REVIEW: Dinner at Eight, Performance Edition (Minnesota Opera)

The eponymous dinner party in Minnesota Opera’s Dinner at Eight. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Minnesota Opera’s Dinner at Eight, which premiered on Saturday at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, is a vibrant new comedy with an engaging score and finely tune libretto. This review focuses on the performances in the opera.

Tina (Nadia Fayad) in a scene-stealing walk-on exchange. Photo by Cory Weaver.

One of the features of the score is that it provides each major character with small moments of arioso passages within the larger scenes. As businessman Oliver Jordan, for example, Stephen Powell captures well the pathos and insecurities of a man haunted by the economic collapse around him. Susannah Biller, as Kitty Packard, is gifted with some of the most playful and memorable moments in the score as she musically teases and manipulates. (If you’ve been wondering when the opera eye candy movement would reach Minnesota Opera’s stage this season, several of Kitty’s scenes qualify.)

The central narrative of Dinner at Eight revolves around Millicent Jordan (Mary Dunleavy)’s sometimes frantic party planning. Dunleavy is an engaging hostess, going for broke on the more melodramatic passages (of which there are many) and milking them for comedic gold. This could easily become tedious through repetition, but Dunleavy executes some splendid peaks and valleys. There’s a strong sense that stage director Tomer Zvulun has found the heart of the material and arranged the players well; the comedic timing of the orchestral commentary (led by conductor David Agler’s baton) is spot-on, and brings out much of the situational humor.

As an opera about socialites (would-be and otherwise), a major part of Dinner at Eight is conveyed by the costumes and gigantic sets. The expansive backdrops byAlexander Dodge are decadently beautiful, a conspicuous display of wealth and ostentation clad in luxurious fabrics and erected on a giant scale. The costumes by Victoria Tzykun are similarly beautiful and visually striking, recalling chic fashion from the early 1930s. Watch for who changes costumes and why and you learn a lot about how they see themselves and their appearance in society.

One of the more interesting dynamics of the opera is the tension between the philandering Joseph Talbot (Andrew Garland) and his wife Lucy Talbot (Adriana Zabala). Garland and Zabala’s chemistry is compellingly interesting as they wrestle with their fraught relationship, both in private and in the titular dinner. Another couple on the rocks, Larry Renault (Richard Troxell) and Paula Jordan (Siena Forest), plays out a darker mirror of this situation, with Forest’s rendition of “One moment he’s devoted…” one of the performance’s vocal highlights. At the end of the day, however, it’s Dunleavy who walks out with the comedic crown and her on-stage husband Stephen Powell (as the ailing Oliver Jordan) who cause the audience to feel the most. What’s more tragic than a lobster meal that doesn’t turn out?

Richard Troxell as the washed-up movie star Larry Renault, at the end of his rope. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Dinner at Eight plays through March 19 at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul, MN.

Basil Considine