Bolcom’s Dinner at Eight in Wexford

Dinner at Eight, the play by Georges Kaufmann and Edna Ferber, famously filmed by George Cukor, provides a good source for the opera, premiered in Minnesota last year and given its first European performance at Wexford. It provides a biting commentary on New York society in the 1930s, is full of colourful characters, and mixes comedy with pathos. The libretto by Mark Campbell is sharp and witty but sadly, this is not matched by William Bolcom’s music which is too soft-cantered, lacking the brittleness and acerbic quality required. The harmonies are too easy; the orchestral themes and instrumentation too obvious.

A pity, because in other respects this was an enjoyable and impressive performance. Tomer Zvulun’s production underpinned the work with adroit movements and effective but not exaggerated characterisations. Alexander Dodge’s jagged abstract décor was stunning as were the costumes of Victoria Tzykun. And there was a first-rate cast, headed by Mary Dunleavy who, as the dinner hostess, communicated with her powerful soprano a range of emotions from exultation to despair, and from malice to ingratiation. Among the others Craig Irvin was a suitably slimy financier, while Susannah Biller as his wife seduced the audience with her Marilyn Monroe-like floosy. Brett Polegato’s firm baritone helped the latter’s doctor slide from caring attentiveness to lustful ardour and, as his long-suffering wife, mezzo Sharon Carty offered some touching moments of genuine emotion; a welcome respite from the overall atmosphere of heartless ambition.