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REVIEW: Dinner at Eight‘s Splendid Comic Melodrama (Minnesota Opera)

New money socialites Dan Packard (Craig Irvin) and Kitty Packard (Susannah Biller) squabble in the world premiere production of Dinner at Eight by Minnesota OperaPhoto by Cory Weaver.

Contemporary American opera is usually no laughing matter. At any given opera premiere, you can expect an occasional inserted joke and perhaps some moments of wry underscoring, but by and large the last century of new works has been dominated by seriousness and a poor sense of comic timing. William Bolcom and Mark Campbell’s new opera Dinner at Eight is a breath of fresh air: a deeply comedic parody of melodrama that inspires regular grins, chuckles, and waves of laughter.

A vintage advertisement for lobster aspic. Among other things, the dish uses two types of specialty butters and embeds lobster and hard-boiled eggs in gelatin.

Dinner at Eight, which was premiered by Minnesota Opera on Saturday at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, is based on the 1933 play of the same name by William S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber. Campbell has mined the source material for its best one-liners, fine-tuned the comedic timing for singing, and tweaked some of the jokes.

A basic principle of the opera Dinner at Eight is that the principal characters take themselves far too seriously, which end us up producing a great deal of comedy. One of the best examples of this is Millicent Jordan (Mary Dunleavy)’s obsession with her dinner menu. Millicent, eager to wow her VIP guests, dreams up culinary perfection in the form of a lobster aspic (see sidebar). This leads to one of the most entertaining arias, “Lobster in aspic!” as she imagines an increasingly decadent presentation and her guests’ reaction. As Karl Marx wrote, history (or in this case, the aspic) repeats itself – first as tragedy (alas, poor aspic, we barely knew you), and then as farce (the stellar Act I Finale).

Bolcom’s clever score is written in his later idiom, with the melodies living somewhere not too far from but outside of common practice tonality. The vocal writing is frequently lyrical and beautiful, although where it ends up might surprise you – some passages recall Debussy’s use of the whole tone scale, for example. The orchestra frequently interjects rhythmic pulses and sardonic comments, as in the duet “Our Town” (this piece seems destined to be known as “The Money Duet”).

As in Ferber and Kaufman’s Royal Family, there’s nothing that the characters do by half in this story. In the adaptation, the humor is often drawn out, but it’s not belabored – most of the repetitions that Kaufman liked to add to make sure that everyone got the jokes have been excised, with Bolcom’s orchestral writing assuming that role with its musical commentary and countermelodies.

A conversation in the play Dinner at Eight.
The same passage in the opera, streamlined for singing and sung simultaneously with another conversation.

The action of Dinner at Eight revolves around Millicent and her party planning, but the narrative is peppered with interesting characters. Take, for example, Brenda Harris’s appearances as the actress Carlotta Vance – Harris, resplendently attired by Victoria Tzykun, dominates the stage with all the charisma that caused the original play’s producer so much trouble in casting. Another, more washed out actor – Larry Renault (Richard Troxell) – also provides some of the larger gravitas that punctuates the Great Depression-era setting. This is a cast of characters who’ve royally screwed up their lives in ways that are funny to watch as they collide…at least from the outside.

Dinner at Eight does end rather abruptly – a facet of the original play – but as an evening meal it is still a pleasant bellyful of laughs.

Read Basil Considine’s separate review of the musical performances in Dinner at Eight.

Socialite Millicent Jordan (Mary Dunleavy, right) dreams of lobster aspic. 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