Banquet Of Secrets defies categorisation. Deliciously so.
It’s billed as a musical, but the recitative-heavy score and classical singing put this on a whole other playing field from Ghost and Georgy Girl across town. The music comes from an eclectic journeyman composer (Paul Grabowsky) and a first-time librettist largely known for silly TV skits (Steve Vizard). It is the first opera in the world, surely, commissioned for a food festival. It’s flavourful yet wholesome. Bittersweet.
Its cast of impossibly white, painfully bourgeois characters — the High Street lush, the single mum, the put-upon dad, the fey art dealer — are archetypes on the page but almost immediately fleshy and fallible on stage. The title of the piece is as naff as the premise — four ageing uni chums sharing secrets at an annual reunion dinner — is contrived.
And yet. And yet …
It manages to be another near-towering achievement for Victorian Opera, simply because of what it isn’t: reheated leftovers, snap-frozen offshore (the food metaphors are irresistible; apologies). This is 100% fresh opera, locally sourced, by us, for us (in a particular white-bred sense, at least — baby steps, opera). And it’s really quite good.
Mia (Antoinette Halloran), Rose (Dimitry Shepherd), Drew (David Rogers-Smith) and Jean Pierre (Kanen Breen) have been meeting at their favourite restaurant once a year since they became entangled as starry-eyed teenagers two decades earlier. They’re as close, and as distanced, as old friends can be. “Like last year’s Christmas lights,” one says, “tangled and broken.” The catch-ups have drunkenly glossed over moments in the past that still haunt. Tonight, though, “JP”, with an ulterior motive, insists they all spill the beans.
The waiter (a wry Michael Carman in a non-singing role) announces the arrival of each course: “flotsam and jetsam of scallop … washed ashore on a windswept beach of wild shitake and smoked dulse”; “flashbacks of saddle of lamb … dreams of provençal anchoïade”; “fantasy of pomme de terre”; “a profusion of green asparagus”; “seven concentric circles of tray ripened cheeses lusting after a tartare of fallen seasonal fruits and vegetables”. This is high-wank food, and all real — famed French chef Philippe Mouchel designed the detailed menu especially. A mirror hovers over the dining table to teasingly whet our appetites. It is the only event on the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival calendar that will leave you hungry.
Each course is chased with a confession. And it’s here, surprisingly, that comedian-turned-talk show host-turned-writer-turned (once disqualified) corporate director Vizard demonstrates a restraint in his book and lyrics not found in the menu (or in his last playwriting effort, Melbourne Theatre Company’s Last Man Standing). The rigid structure of the story and constraints of writing to music (around 80% of the piece is sung) have helped. With economy and misty reverence he breathes life into characters that could have been cardboard cutouts.
The performers do similar. There’s an easy endearment among all four, built on long-standing real-life relationships. Both sopranos are terrific, particularly (mezzo) Shepherd who not only sings with crystal clarity but is best at conveying heart-broken regret through watery eyes and weary presence. Halloran — I’m assured an excellent Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd for Victorian Opera last year — is colder but entirely assured. Beardy bear Rogers-Smith is a rich-man’s Shane Jacobson, a sturdy tenor with serious acting chops. He’s been on the fringes of the classical scene — for Melbourne Opera, mostly — but is always a welcome presence (even with, I’d argue, some fragility in his upper register). Breen makes the right choices, shading the character’s flamboyance thoughtfully, and his high tenor pairs well with Rogers-Smith’s more gravely tones.
Grabowsky — a practiced Melbourne composer of stage and screen, including one other opera (Love In The Age Of Therapy) — conducts a violin, cello, clarinet and percussionist from the piano. His euphonic score offers a subtle range of styles but also the coherence necessary in musical theatre. Of all the company’s new work in recent years — Ian Grandage’s The Riders, Gordon Kerry’s Midnight Son, Alan John’s How To Kill Your Husband — it’s probably the most accomplished.
As director, Roger Hodgman is largely invisible; sparse design (sets and costumes by Christina Smith) was the right choice here, though the clipart projected onto the mirror didn’t quite work. Matt Scott’s lighting and Jim Atkins’ sound design create a suitably stormy ambience.
For its strange mix of ingredients, Banquet Of Secrets can be harmony on the palate: sweet and salty, bitter and umami. Get it while it’s hot.