★★★★☆ A feast for the ears peppered with delicious performances, but an implausible plot leaves a sour taste.

Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne
March 1, 2016

When you think about it, music and food aren’t all that dissimilar. Both have the power to manipulate our emotions or evoke distant memories, and the physical sustenance of a good meal mirrors the psychological nourishment delivered by a beautiful performance. A production combining these two elements is a tasty prospect, but while many of the key ingredients that make up Paul Grabowsky and Steve Vizard’s new chamber opera, Banquet of Secrets, are of world-class quality, some shortcomings leave a sour taste.

Its premise is both simple and relatable: four old friends, Mia (Antoinette Halloran), Jean Pierre (Kanen Breen), Drew (David Rogers-Smith) and Rose (Dimity Shepherd), who met at university twenty years earlier, come together for their annual reunion at their favourite restaurant. As is often the case, the ups and downs of their busy lives have pushed them apart over time, but for one night a year, they meet to reconnect, reminisce and rekindle the bonds of their deep friendship. This particular meeting is different from previous occasions, however. A special degustation banquet has been arranged by Jean Pierre, and as the multiple courses appear, the architect of this bespoke feast suggests that they each divulge a secret – something profoundly personal they have never shared before. With the wheels of this game greased by an ample supply of wine, they each reveal their hushed truths, radically and irreparably altering their decades-old relationship.

 (photo: Jeff Busby)

Victorian Opera are perhaps the most avid advocates of new opera in Australia, but they are also savvy pragmatists, and the scale and aesthetic of Banquet of Secrets have clearly been carefully calculated. With just four singers and an actor on stage and five musicians in the band, the financial resources required to mount this production aren’t unnecessarily extravagant and Paul Grabowsky’s jazz-infused, pastiche-driven score never threatens to over tax a listener’s musical tastes. 

But that isn’t to say that this production is just a meagre morsel. Individually, each of the four singers is truly superb, but together they have an intoxicating on-stage chemistry. With a seasoned hand such as director Roger Hodgman guiding these performances, it’s clear that the personal idiosyncrasies of these four stellar artists have played a significant role in crafting their respective characters, and the emotional authenticity this creates is difficult to fault.

The level of personal investment made by each performer in the service of realising these characters is also a major boon for the score. The opening numbers tear through a dizzyingly wordy amount of semi-tedious exposition, but once the plot relaxes, Grabowsky is able to let his music bloom. Once released from the straightjacket of these chattering scene-setters, the true dramatic potential of each of these four characters comes to the fore, and at times, the synergy between musical and theatrical intention is so incisive that it delivers a jolt of high-voltage visceral energy that is jaw-dropping. 

 (photo: Jeff Busby)

The most breathtaking moments are anchored to the secrets, which each tap into an immediately accessible pathos. Easily the most poignant of these scenes belongs to Antoinette Halloran’s Mia, perfectly capturing the urgency of this confession while simultaneously offering an exquisite musical vernacular. Kanen Breen’s Jean Pierre is equally heart-breaking through the achingly moving climax of the show; there is no question that the emotion that he and his colleagues are sharing with us is anything less than entirely honest.

Christina Smith’s set is minimal but nonetheless impressive. A long banqueting table, beautifully set for an elegant dinner, sits centre stage while hanging overhead, a giant mirror in an ornate silver frame offers the audience a glimpse at the gastronomic triumphs beneath. This huge reflective surface occasionally swims with nebulous, dreamlike images, taking us into these dark memories while also providing some helpful visual cues to assist the narrative flow. 

 (photo: Jeff Busby)

There is, however, one big fly in this otherwise perfectly prepared soup. As a piece of theatre, this narrative is best taken with a pinch of salt; at times, it’s off-puttingly mawkish and it pounces on a number of dramatic clichés without much self-awareness. There is also something implausible and persistently jarring about the way this intimate get-together evolves. In some ways, the fine-tuned precision that each performer brings to their respective characters only acts to magnify the improbability of their relatively laissez-faire reactions upon hearing these harrowing anecdotes. There is also a heavy reliance on abrupt scene changes which repeatedly rob the narrative of any momentum, just when it seems to be picking up some much-needed speed. Occasionally the story goes off piste, to muse over the vapid obsession of social media and the difficulties of online dating, and while this offers some light comic relief, the notion that such raucous high spirits could proceed a moment of extreme vulnerability seems dubious.

Some of these dangling narrative threads are tied up by the end of the opera, and indeed, the deeply moving final scene of Banquet of Secrets is persuasive enough almost to redeem this story’s flaws. Much like a fine wine, its notes are complex and sometimes bitter on the palate, but it has a sublime finish. 

Victorian Opera present Banquet of Secrets, at the Playhouse of the Arts Centre Melbourne until March 5.