City Recital Hall, Sydney
July 25, 2018

William of Rubruck’s detailed report of his journey from Constantinople to the capital of the Mongol Empire, Karakorum, is one of the most significant works of mediaeval geographical literature. In their collaboration Karakorum, which opened in Sydney last night, the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and French ‘mediaeval world folk’ ensemble La Camera delle Lacrime draw on the 13th-century Flemish Franciscan monk’s travels – during which he documented a myriad of different peoples, beliefs, animals and landscapes in a diary he would bring back to King Louis IX – to create a musical voyage onstage in which the mediaeval musics of Christianity, Buddhism and Islam mingle.

Playing the part of William, as Narrator, is actor David Wenham. Dressed in a black cloak, he delivers Michael Costi’s script (based on La Camera Director Khaï-dong Luong’s original concept and directed here by Constantine Costi) with thoughtful reverence, as if pondering each observation, before withdrawing to write in his journal as his story weaves together strands of music ranging from the French troubadour song Ay! Dieus to Buddhist hymns and Sufi chants.

Karakorum, Australian Brandenburg OrchestraActor David Wenham. Photo © Steven Godbee

La Camera, which was formed by Bruno Bonhoure and Luong, draws on mediaeval sources to create contemporary theatrical performances. The ensemble is led by Bonhoure, a charismatic singer – and dancer – who moves to the music with mystical intensity, infusing his every moment with a sense of ritual. He dovetails with Wenham, taking on Rubruck’s singing voice (as well as others) with a remarkable flexibility that sees him adapting to the various styles of chant and song.

The Brandenburgs are joined on stage by the La Camera players, who bring voice, violin, kamanche (a bowed instrument common in Persian music), erhu (a Chinese bowed instrument), flutes, hurdy-gurdy, cornamuse (a double reed instrument) and various percussion instruments to the musical table, creating a multi-hued sound world reflective of the diversity of musical styles found in Karakorum and along the Silk Road. Singers and instrumentalists move around the stage, in and out of the drama in a way that enhances the sense of ritual pervading this piece.

Karakorum, Australian Brandenburg OrchestraLa Camera delle Lacrime and the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra. Photo © Steven Godbee

From the atmospheric drones and winding violin lines of La Camera’s Mokrane Adlani or the Brandenburgs’ Shaun Lee-Chen to Bonhoure’s powerful chanting, Rubruck’s account itself offers plenty of opportunity for music, the monk seemingly bursting into song (the Gregorian chants Salve Regina, Ave Regina Caelorum and A solis ortus cardine) upon entering any Christian building along the way. (Costi can be forgiven if the music feels shoe-horned in at times, this is in fact fidelity to Rubruck’s original, which at times feels like a kind of mediaeval jukebox musical).

But the music is beautiful and varied – Yan Li’s erhu is particularly compelling, and her singing voice provides a dramatic contrast in colour to the male voices and strings that dominate the music. There is a sense of mystery and discovery to the performance, but there is also lightness – Bonhoure’s ‘drinking song’ choreography to a Mongolian melody manages to be simultaneously graceful and tipsy.

The disparate musics are woven together finally and effectively in The Debate at Karakorum, in which the Mongol leader, Möngke Khan, presides over a debate or rhetorical contest between the religions – Nestorian Christians (plus Rubruck), Buddhists and Muslims – and the finale is musically uplifting. But overall there is a sense that Karakorum skates across the surface: despite the dramatisation, we are given little insight into Rubruck as a man, the human drama of such an incredible journey or the questions of faith and culture that are raised by it – instead the story simply serves to string together a series of beautiful musical postcards. Ultimately, though, Wenham and Bonhoure are charming frontmen, making Karakorum a pleasant and interesting journey through the sounds of the mediaeval Silk Road.

The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra plays at City Recital Hall, Sydney until August 3, Melbourne Recital Centre, August 4 – 5, and QPAC August 7