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Unexpected drama

Neubacher Shor Contemporary
06/02/2015 -  & June 3, 4, 5, 2015
Death and Desire:
Franz Schubert: Die schöne Müllerin, D. 795
Olivier Messiaen: Harawi

Krisztina Szabó (The Woman), Stephen Hegedus (The Man)
Christopher Mokrzewski (piano)
Joel Ivany (director), Michael Gianfrancesco (set and costume designer), Jason Hand (lighting designer)

K Szabó & S. Hegedus (© Darryl Block)

Death & Desire is the title given to Joel Ivany’s dramatization of two widely contrasted song cycles, Franz Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin, composed in 1823, and Olivier Messiaen’s Harawi, dating from 1945. Against the Grain Theatre has presented contrasting works in a program before, such as one featuring Janácek and Kurtág (reviewed here) but this time the songs in the two cycles are interwoven. The result is a fraught conversation cum confrontation between two people, The Man singing the lovelorn Schubert songs, and The Woman responding with the surreal Messiaen numbers.

The order of the Schubert cycle is pretty much kept. “Mein!” is moved forward to end the first half with a flourish, although it turns out to be an ambiguous one. Two of the 20 Schubert songs are cut, one of them being “Der Jäger” which introduces the man’s rival (a hunter) for the love of the maiden. A love triangle is not at issue in Ivany’s treatment of the combined works, but instead a huge gap in communication. While mostly at cross-purposes, the couple actually kiss three times, but the second one is very fraught. The Woman gets to complete the penultimate Schubert song, then holds The Man in her arms as he sings his final, dying, song.

The 12 songs of Harawi are performed in their published order. They do not recount any sort of plot (as that implied in the Schubert cycle). All are described as “surreal”, although at least some use recognizable words (albeit used in non sequitur fashion) while others use an “Andean” lingo. Bass-baritone Stephen Hegedus gives us a vulnerable, up-close-and-personal performance of the lovelorn man with his fluctuating moods. Krisztina Szabó has lots of scope for dramatic polarities and makes the most of them. Christopher Mokrzewski handles both pianistic styles in a persuasive way. Many of the Messiaen pieces have a distinctive clangorous quality that foreshadow his Turangalîla-Symphonie composed just three years after this work (and is actually a continuation of a thematic treatment of the Tristan myth, the first part of which was Harawi).

Once again AtG has chosen an unusual venue, this time an art gallery with seating for maybe 100 people. The main part of the audience is in one room looking into a smaller room where the action occurs. Michael Gianfrancesco’s set consists of a simple table and chairs on a well-polished floor; the outstanding design element is due to Jason Hand’s lighting design, with its shifting washes of colour. The costumes: The Man wears white, The Woman wears black; both are barefoot. The total result is like a good, old-fashioned happening. Remember them?

Against the Grain show no sign of slowing down, even though artistic director Joel Ivany and founding music director Christopher Mokrzewski are increasingly busy with other projects. In the summer they will complete their Mozart/Da Ponte/Ivany trio with A Little too Cosy at the Banff Centre (to be presented next spring in Toronto), and in December they will be repeating their staged production of Handel’s Messiah.

Michael Johnson



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