NZ Arts Festival 2008, Michael Fowler Centre
March 9 | Reviewed by Marcus McShane

LEONARD COHEN is (along with Bob Dylan) a man who practically created the singer/songwriter genre in the 60s. Phillip Glass is about as legendary as you can get in classical music without dying. They are two artists who have created a whole canon of work around themselves. So my expectations of any collaboration between the two are huge. After all at this stage in their careers they can do what the hell they like. Which is the sense you get from Book Of Longing. Experimental, but experimenting with the kind of budget normally reserved for the construction industry.

And it almost works.

A simple and at times powerful production. With a lavish-yet-minimal feel to the whole production, like that of a very postmodern opera. A feeling reinforced by the libretto passed out at the door, and by the elderly couple next to me using ornate opera glasses to view the soloists.

The librettoís quite nice. Iím putting it on my bookshelf.

Glassí composition and Michael Reismannís music direction are both excellent. If youíve heard The Hours soundtrack youíll know what I mean. The set, a gallery wall of static canvasses and projected images of Cohenís own sketches, is an artwork in its own right. The progressions of Cohenís powerful and ugly self-portraits kept reminding me of his lyrics from ĎChelsea Hotel #2í:

        you told me again
        You preferred handsome men
        But for me you would make
        An exception


The quality of the supporting musicians and vocalists is also superb. So many elements of this production are so good that the few elements that arenít so good stick out badly. The stage direction only served to distract me from the content, consisting as it did of stagey and predetermined pacing and sprawling in straight chairs by the vocalists. The lighting lacked the sharpness of the rest of the production, was uninspired and at times simply messy. And the vocalistsí voices were professional and near-flawless, but on the whole simply far too sweet and pretty for Cohenís words. Often, during the harmonies, if you didnít have or couldnít read the libretto, you had no idea of what was being sung. The harmonies managed to overwhelm the words.

And surely, with Cohen, the words are the point.

The contrast to this being Cohenís own recorded voice reading some of the shorter pieces unaccompanied. At age 72 Cohenís voice is that of a tired and bitter old god. And hearing him made me want to wipe away all the flowery singing and get down to the dirty heart of Cohenís words and self-portraits.

Apart from Cohen the strongest elements for me were the three instrumental solos (cello, flute and alto saxophone, by Wendy Sutter and Andrew Sterman respectively) which demonstrated again just how high the talent level is all through this production. Thereís an appeal in the simplicity of a perfect solo after the distraction of so many other competing elements. And thatís perhaps my gripe with the whole production. All the disparate elements deserve appreciation on their own, yet fail to gel when based around Cohenís intimate and powerful dialogue.

Still, this is a lesson to me maybe. Go in with huge expectations and youíll find fault. Go in expecting nothing and youíll be amazed.

I think however, that Iíd have rather listened to Book of Longing as read by Cohen, accompanied just by Phillip Glass on piano & and Wendy Sutter on cello, while lying on my back on the roof at night, drinking whiskey and watching the clouds.