Dunstan Playhouse, 17–18 June 2016. Compositions by Elvis Costello and The Brodsky Quartet. Music performed by The Zephyr Quartet. Piano and musical direction by Carol Young. Performed by Michaela Burger, Cameron Goodall, Jude Henshall and Jamie Jewell. Directed by David Mealor.
Elvis Costello and The Brodsky Quartets’ Juliet Letters, recorded live and released in 1993, stands tall in pop music’s much-derided pantheon of classical crossovers. Inspired by the apparently true story of a Veronese professor whose job it was to return letters addressed to Shakespeare’s Juliet, the album’s twenty songs—many of them only a minute or two long—constitute a sort of love letter to the letter, to the kind of yearning, expressive correspondence nobody writes anymore (at least not by hand, and not free from emoticons).
Costello’s lyrics—every bit as long-winded and acid as his work in the pop arena—infuse each song with its own micro-narrative, some slippery and elusive, or simply too generalised to produce a clear image of the sender, others summoning substantial visions of nervous husbands filing for divorce, female soldiers writing home from the front, or advertising executives filling the world with their sensationalist copy.
Musically, the album is difficult to pin down. Costello, famous for his encyclopedic knowledge of all forms of music, draws on a range of eclectic influences. There are, particularly in ‘This Offer is Unrepeatable’, flashes of Brecht-Weill-style satire; ‘I Almost Had a Weakness’ and ‘Jacksons, Monk and Rowe’ (improbably released as a single!) evoke the Beatles at their most luscious by way of Philip Glass; other elements recall, variously, the lieder tradition of Schubert and Wolf, and even the ethereal beauty of French composer Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time.
In this mini-opera-like production, The Zephyr Quartet replaces The Brodsky Quartet of the original album, with Costello’s vocals shared between well-known Adelaide performers Michaela Burger, Cameron Goodall, Jude Henshall, and Jamie Jewell. Musical director Carol Young augments the quartet with piano and, during ‘This Offer is Unrepeatable’, accordion. The decision to introduce piano to the score, which has been subtly rearranged by Young, is a curious one on the part of director David Mealor, often banishing the Quartet—one of the country’s most accomplished—to long stretches of silence. Even when playing, they seem too far to the rear in the mix, and rarely allowed to attack or stretch out in the same way the Brodsky Quartet does on the record.
The vocal performances, on the other hand, are uniformly strong, especially that of Michaela Burger who draws the first applause of the night, thus breaking a substantial layer of ice, for her soaring, torch song-like rendition of ‘Taking My Life in Your Hands’. It’s an improvement on the original, Costello’s abrasive over-singing happily forgotten. Other songs, such as ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ and ‘The First to Leave’, profit from their rearrangements as duets, while a lyrically updated ‘Damnation’s Cellar’—the legs of Kim Kardashian replacing those of Princess Diana—features a stunning four-voice canon.
Mealor keeps on stage movement to a gestural minimum, red letters written, sealed, and delivered—and sometimes burned, or turned into paper planes—as the performers weave between designer Kathryn Sproul’s intriguing assembly of chairs from different time periods. Chris Petridis’ lighting and AV design sees the title of each song projected in individual typeface onto a huge black scrim that also allows for some evocative stage pictures, such as when, during the closing number, ‘The Birds Will Still Be Singing’, the performers are lit solely by candles. Petridis’ inventive, sinuous lighting design is a reminder that the near-ubiquitous Geoff Cobham is no longer in a school of his own in this town.
The Juliet Letters has the unmistakable feel of a work-in-progress, neither concert-like enough to succeed as a purely musical event, nor theatrical enough to amount to a thorough reimagining of the original album. Like that album, it is a hybrid that resists classification but contains many pleasures, not the least of which is Costello’s first-rate songcraft—worthy of reappraisal, and skillfully showcased by this production’s four fine performers.