In Banquet of Secrets Victorian Opera moves from the otherworldly Baroque opera voyage of their first offering for 2016 to a contemporary musical theatre journey into the emotional lives of four close friends. Two very different works in terms of musical style and narrative content, they share several important features, the most notable being the excellence of the performers.
Both Banquet of Secrets and Voyage to the Moon fielded a small chamber ensemble of virtuoso musicians and three or four singers with exceptional vocal and acting skills. The performers were bound to be singularly well suited to their roles in these new works since they were in a position to contribute to their evolution.
A pared back style of production also characterizes these productions, with props and scenery kept to a minimum but used to maximum effect. For Banquet of Secrets, Costume/Set Designer Christina Smith opted for an uncluttered stage with the band of five musicians on one side and an upright piano and small table and stools on the other. A large banqueting table took centre stage while a giant mirror hovered above, reflecting the courses and providing a screen for subtle projected images as the friends revealed their secrets. Matt Scott’s imaginative lighting plot underscored the emotional rollercoaster and aided certain visual sleights of hand. Roger Hodgman’s direction ensured that the multiple shifts in mood, time and setting were coherent and well paced.
With an uninterrupted running time of one hour and thirty minutes, Banquet of Secrets is another relatively short work of considerable complexity and intensity. Unlike Voyage to the Moon, Steve Vizard’s libretto is one that a modern audience can relate to immediately – understandable considering his inspiration was a memorable dinner he shared with a friend many years ago.
In Vizard’s scenario, four friends from university days maintain the ritual of a yearly dinner at their favourite restaurant. But this is an exotic banquet with a difference. Collector/hoarder and mastermind of this “last supper”, Jean Pierre (Kanen Breen) wants it to be especially “perfect” for his friends and as a setting for his own revelation. In return, frustrated actress and jetsetting egocentric Mia (Antoinette Halloran), frustrated poet and single mother of three Rose (Dimity Shepherd) and under-appreciated, practical GP Drew (David Rogers-Smith) must tell the others a secret that they have never revealed in their long years of friendship. They confront each other and the audience with typically modern tales of sex and death told in an earthy language lubricated by wine. The guilt and fear of others’ judgment that motivated their silence for all those years is almost justified as revelations threaten to overwhelm friendship. In the end, empathy and the connecting threads of love in its various guises assert themselves.
Although there is not the degree of hilarity that might be expected of the comic talents of Vizard and Breen, the lighter moments are well timed and serve to leaven what could become excessively over-wrought. Wry observations and joie de vivre are finely balanced with the pathos of lives fractured by loss as generosity of spirit and the redemptive power of friendship prevail. While the upbeat ending may be on the sentimental side, given what has gone before, each revelation was presented with such moving conviction by all singers that there were few dry eyes to be found among the audience.
Whether in their set revelatory pieces or in duos, trios or quartets, all singers displayed a wealth of vocal colour that was only marred at times by over-amplification when they sang at full strength. All four have the capacity to fill a large auditorium without any electronic assistance at all; this was a case when more was less and became a little wearing. The softer passages were often very beautiful and the rapport that marked their interactions as actors were to be found in the vocal ensembles. An unexpected talent was revealed when David Rogers-Smith sat at the second piano to accompany Halloran and Hall for one of the comic highlights of the night: “Like me” – a riff on social media dating.
Another entertaining feature was the degustation menu itself, reproduced in the program and the butt of ridicule in the lively ensemble number “What does it mean?” In the speaking role of an experienced waiter alive to and indulgent of the weaknesses of the clientele, Michael Carman added to the gaiety with some deftly executed pieces of business.
Paul Grabowsky’s score expresses the trajectory of the friends’ emotional states with musical styles ranging from the more contained, almost Palm Court flavor of the opening numbers to Latin dance rhythms and the freer nuanced whisperings of violin, cello, clarinet and percussion as vulnerabilities begin to be exposed. Conducting from the piano, Grabowsky sustained the momentum with suave playing and clear intention.
Victorian Opera has produced this latest initiative in association with Arts Centre Melbourne, as part of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival and with Brisbane Powerhouse. Hopefully, it will have at least as much exposure as their Voyage to the Moon collaboration with Musica Viva is a substantial and delectable feast deserving of a wide audience and longevity.
The image is of cast members Dimity Shepherd, Michael Carman, Kanen Breen. Copyright Jeff Busby.
Heather Leviston reviewed this production at the Arts Centre Playhouse on March 1 & 3.