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BANQUET OF SECRETS

Victorian Opera

Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne

March 1-5

The national opera company has, for quite a while, followed the lead of other similar organizations in presenting musicals as part of the yearly round, supposedly to recoup losses on more arcane ventures; for every Of Mice and Men, the contemporary balance sheet requires a My Fair Lady.  The much-mourned Victorian Opera Company pioneered the same path in its later years and often enough the popular seasonal implant worked successfully, particularly when a competent cast took part, i.e. singers who could dance and act, and knew what was involved in projecting a personality as well as a big number.

The current state company has moved into this sphere with gusto and, despite my limited exposure to its work, the venture has shown a pathway out of fiscal darkness if the mid-July 2014 Into the Woods production was any indication – a deftly-staged production gifted with a very able cast, the company’s talents exerted on a sterling music-plus-book combination.

The last time I was in the Playhouse for a Paul Grabowsky opus was 14 years ago at an opener for the Melbourne International Arts Festival.   The distinguished jazz musician had collaborated with playwright Johanna Murray-Smith in an opera, Love in the Age of Therapy, which barely hit the sides on the way down. Two survivors from that operation, mezzo Dimity Shepherd and tenor Kanen Breen, feature in this latest enterprise, one where Grabowsky’s score partners a text by Steve Vizard.  Other cast members are soprano Antoinette Halloran and tenor David Rogers-Smith, with Michael Carman in a non-singing role.  Grabowsky led his forces from the piano, directing violin Elizabeth Sellars, cello Svetlana Bogosavljevic, clarinet David Griffiths, and Peter Neville on percussion.

Banquet of Secrets
Banquet of Secrets

The work revolves around a restaurant banquet; for the four singing characters, a yearly commitment since their final year of university twenty years before.  It’s a get-together for friends, the difference this year being that the host-figure, Breen’s Jean Pierre, sets up a scenario in which each diner tells his/her deepest secret.  At the conclusion of the meal course-interrupted confessions – an assisted death, an illegitimate child, a long-lived lesbic infatuation, another death in the wings  –  the four singers combine for a placid paean to love.  Without interval, the work stretches for about 90 minutes, staged on a bare-bones set by Matt Scott, the whole directed by Roger Hodgman.

This is the first musical commissioned by Victorian Opera and its short season forms part of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, which is paid lip service by waiter Carman’s ludicrous descriptions of the food being served (with some pictures of the menu’s constituents projected on a giant mirror slanted behind the focal dining table) and a running reference to an aged, valuable bottle of Latour that is eventually opened as a sort of gustatorial denouement.  As a device, the feast’s progress works well enough and the singers give of their best to their roles, at times fighting to be heard or remain comprehensible over the accompanying instrumental quintet.

Vizard’s book, in spite of several clever spoofs of character types and digs at fashions and fads, follows a pretty well-trodden histrionic path.  When university for the group of friends finally broke up for good, Halloran’s Mia went to Rome to meet her mother, ostensibly; in fact, she had a baby and was coerced into giving it up, although exactly why never becomes clear.  OK, but so what?  It’s a trauma, certainly but not worth keeping secret, especially in the social context occupied by these characters.  Later, we find that Mia’s baby is seeking her out and that – wouldn’t you know it? – one of the other diners is the child’s father and he feels the need to tear up a passion because he hadn’t been told that he had fathered a child.  Yes, well that’s fine but such a lurch in plot brings to mind the more over-contrived episodes of Neighbours and Home and Away.

Shepherd’s Rose has had a family and a bitter divorce, gained some stature as a poet, and has been sending Mia an anonymous Valentine card every year since the quartet went into the extra-university world.  Jean Pierre brings the confessions to a climax by informing his friends that he has days, possibly hours to live.  And it’s at this stage that the pathos is piled on in a tableau suggestive of a mini-Last Supper; the dramatic flow seizes up and a kind of deploration for the living begins.  All of which would be fine if you felt sympathy for these characters – but I found it impossible to engage with the chain of confessions, probably because, once somebody set out along the admission highway, the results were inevitable enough to be trite.

Grabowsky’s score works its way through a series of dances, set numbers, ensembles for various vocal combinations, and often provides relief from dialogue that has lasted too long.   Using a wide range of percussion, having Griffiths oscillate between several clarinets, requiring some intriguing sound-production techniques from the two strings, the composer’s main drive comes from his piano which is a constant presence through each page of the score.  Expertly accomplished, as with Love in the Age of Therapy, little remains in the memory beyond a melodic scrap or two associated with the confessional solos for both female characters.  Not much draws attention from the action – some string harmonics, a bass clarinet rumble, sequences of cleverly elided keyboard chords – but the final impression is of backing colours rather than arresting lyricism.

Of the singers, Halloran gives a gripping account of her secret, finding a dramatic bite to a story that is unexceptional except in its telling.  Shepherd makes admirable work of her rambling retrospective solo, her angry and self-consciously eccentric, baffled figure one of the more arresting features of the musical.  The doctor who helped his wife out of pain, Rogers-Smith’s Drew shows self-awareness in his opening monologue but the account of his wife’s last moments is elongated beyond its potential to move the observer.  Breen dominates the show, the metteur-en-scene of the action and his tenor is a strong instrument, refreshingly clear in diction and pitch accuracy.  Yet Jean Pierre also treads an all-too-familiar path – witty, bitchy, enthusiastic, manipulative, eventually working himself into central position – the friend with no future but an irritating insistence on being remembered and mourned even before he hops the twig.

From all involved, Banquet of Secrets is a fair effort but unsatisfying for this observer in that its impact emerges through a hefty filter of populist associations; it’s unsurprising in nearly every aspect and its arioso writing with plenty of textual repetition doesn’t so much grate as tire you out.  In the end, the banquet itself is something of a poseur’s delight, the music comfortable and unadventurous, the characters credible but not sufficiently original to sustain involvement for longer than a few introductory moments.