For die-hard fans of acclaimed Canadian singer-songwriter, poet and novelist Leonard Cohen and prolific American composer Philip Glass, including those intrigued by their collaboration, Australian Contemporary Opera Co’s (ACOCo) book of desire (presented in partnership with the Wheeler Centre) is an absorbing, meditative work in which Cohen’s insightful poetry is respectfully colored by Glass’ hypnotic signature music. To a packed house in the marvelous steel and glass framed Edge Theater in Federation Square, it was beautifully performed and sensitively performed.
This is not the first time that Glass and Cohen book of desire was played in Melbourne. Almost 14 years ago, it was programmed by the Melbourne International Arts Festival, a fairly recent work at the time having only been premiered a little over a year earlier, in June 2007, in Toronto.
When Cohen shared an early draft of his collection of poems during a meeting with Glass a few years earlier, the idea was born to set a selection of them to music and imagery. The result is a nearly 90-minute continuous performance incorporating poetry reading, with four artists singing the majority of the work, from vocal solos to quartets, alongside eight musicians with featured solos.
ACOCo Artistic Director Linda Thompson allows the work to speak for itself, carefully avoiding any fanciful concept to interfere with the poetry. For this, Thompson has assembled a talented cast while incorporating five talented young artists from ACOCo – Caitlin Toohey, Genevieve Droppert, Alexandra Amerides, Callum Andreas and Daniel Felton – who add subtle touches of variation to the overall mix.
Melbourne-based British-born actor Richard Piper is a card to play as the voice of Cohen. Piper is perfect for landing Cohen’s poetry with seemingly grounded wisdom and a wry tone. Commanding, smoky-voiced and a splendid match for Cohen, Piper arrives on stage – where the actors are already seated haphazardly in position with their own copy of book of desire – to sit on a park bench. What one would expect from the more than 20 poems spanning an assortment of themes that include romantic longing, witty self-parody, and spiritual striving, was that Piper and the spoken word would have a slightly bigger.
Nevertheless, the word remains central, both treated with reverence by Glass’s moving music and as part of a minimalist staging featuring little more than a hanging screen displaying page after page of the poems, with drawings sequentially taken from scratch and annotations that highlight or condense a thought. . In sum, Alice Edy’s visuals are a soothing and gentle accompaniment.
The entire cast, including the musicians, are elegantly dressed in black with white reserved for the two female soloists, soprano Emily Burke and mezzo-soprano Dimity Shepherd. All are barefoot, as if they were disciples, perhaps trying to hear the words directly rooted in life experience. Either way, it says something raw about poetic honesty.
Highlights include Shepherd bringing his elegantly dark vocal assets to good use of character in Boogie Street. Burke’s penetrating splendor is introduced in They likewhich she shares with the suave and resonant baritone Christopher Tonkin, and the robust tenor Martin Buckingham arouse great expressiveness with How much I love you. Along the way, the vocals ring emotionally and the ensemble moves sparingly as Glass weaves the vocals among recurring musical themes that nestle favorably with the poetry, using compositional techniques true to his enigmatic style. By the Dark River (Babylon) and The Unfaithful Wife (The Night of Santiago) are two jewels of this fusion.
Featured instrumental solos and performance highlights from Susannah Ng (violin), Imogen Manins (cello), Nic Synot (double bass) and Stuart Byrne (saxophone) provide occasional tender breathing space between poems. But there comes a time when saturation levels seem to be reached – the heavy tempo of thousand kisses could very well have benefited greatly from the use of the natural voice alone. Nonetheless, conductor Carlo Antonioli delivered a pleasingly cemented musical landscape overall.
Originally planned as a one-off performance, which quickly sold out, ACOCo’s The Book of Desire heads into a second night to bathe an avid audience in poetry and music in a rich, contemplative and witty form. And, no doubt, a good discussion will follow.
The Australian Contemporary Opera Co performs book of desire May 14 at 8 p.m.