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The Juliet Letters

Cabaret Festival

The original Rolling Stone review of Elvis Costello’s unusual album, The Juliet Letters, compared the “sardonic humour” and “bleak beauty” of the songs to Brecht and Weill.

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Given that pair’s enormous significance to the art of cabaret, it’s good to see Costello’s album given the full treatment at this year’s Adelaide Cabaret Festival.

The original album was recorded with England’s virtuosic Brodsky Quartet, substituted in excellent fashion here by Adelaide’s Zephyr Quartet, with the production’s musical director Carol Young joining in on piano.

Costello’s role in delivering the song cycle – all letters in some form, from a child’s lament about his parents, to marriage partners in varying degrees of separation, and even apparent junk mail – is taken by a quartet of singers: Michaela Burger, Cameron Goodall, Jude Henshall and Jamie Jewell.

The original album was received with some acclaim, and some confusion. Costello, who emerged as an original pop-punk voice in the late 1970s, had produced a highly conceptual work that fell between pop and classical.

In this lightly staged version, the voices of the different protagonists are neatly shared between the singers.

It’s a fiendishly difficult vocal assignment, which the four singers carry off – by and large – in fine fashion. Burger, with her huge range and powerful voice, has the best time of it with Costello’s sophisticated melodies, which soar and leap unexpectedly.

The orchestrations are lovely, and beautifully played by the quartet and Young.

The narrative is inherently disjointed, perhaps making this a challenging night for those who want to try to make sense of the whole (several attempts to update the material – a reference to Kim Kardashian, projections of contemporary politicians during “This Sad Burlesque”, fall a little flat).

Best to sit back and enjoy the fine local musicians, beautiful melodies, and sometimes moving, sometimes perplexing “letters”.

The Adelaide Cabaret Festival season of The Juliet Letters has now finished. The Cabaret Festival continues until June 25.

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