Preview: Death & Desire

DEATH & DESIRE by Franz Schubert and Olivier Messiaen, directed by Joel Ivany, musical direction by Christopher Mokrzewski, with Stephen.

DEATH & DESIRE by Franz Schubert and Olivier Messiaen, directed by Joel Ivany, musical direction by Christopher Mokrzewski, with Stephen Hegedus and Krisztina Szabo. Presented by Against the Grain at Neubacher Shor Contemporary (5 Brock). Opens Tuesday (June 2) and runs to June 5, doors 7:30 pm, show 8 pm. $35-$70.

Against the Grain Theatre doesnt go for the stuffy or traditional.

Its opera productions have included a contemporary version of Don Giovanni that relied on cell phones and texting and a Marriage Of Figaro that turned the audience into wedding guests.

Chamber-style performances have been equally exciting: a blend of dance, song and theatre in The Seven Deadly Sins (And Holier Fare) and the pairing of two little-known 20th century song cycles, helmed by artistic director Joel Ivany.

Ivany and the companys musical director, Christopher Topher Mokrzewski, collaborate on another two song cycles in the companys latest, Death & Desire, which brings together a well-known romantic work, Schuberts 1823 cycle Die Schone Mullerin, and Olivier Messiaens less familiar Harawi, written in 1945.

The former has a narrative: the male speaker falls in love with a millers daughter when she gives her affections to another, he drowns in a brook.

Messiaens work, for which he wrote text and music, is subtitled a song of love and death. Written for piano and female voice and filled with symbolism and spiritual imagery, its at times more dependent on the sound of the words than their literal meaning.

Its the broader aspects of the two composers music that compelled me to think of them as a pairing, says Mokrzewski, a first-rate pianist whos also resident conductor at the Calgary Opera and accompanist for Death & Desire. Im a big fan of Messiaen and recently played his Turangalila-Symphonie which at some level is a really hard piano concerto with the Calgary Philharmonic.

Rather than perform the two song cycles one after the other, Ivany and Mokrzewski have done a mash-up, creating a dramatic structure in which the two singer/characters interact with each other.

On the surface, the Schubert is straightforward, simple and pure. Underneath, though, theres an undercurrent of angst. The central character is a bit bumptious at the start, a headstrong but naive young chap whos led by a brook to find a woman who maybe pays some attention to him. How much of this does he imagine?

Weve latched onto the darker quality of his personality and, through foreshadowing, see him moving toward a bad place by the end of the tale.

The woman in the Messiaen is woven into this mans story, sections of the later cycle appearing between the Schubert songs.

Joel has given a meta-concept to the show, says Mokrzewski, one that sees the two characters in a relationship that echoes Messiaens life. He wrote Harawi, which like Die Schone Mullerin is filled with echoes of the natural world, at a difficult time. His first wife, Claire, developed mental problems and had to be institutionalized he fell in love with a student who eventually became his second wife. But since Messiaen was Catholic, he was always conflicted.

The Messiaen cycle echoes the Tristan and Isolde story, where the supreme aspect of love can only be found in death.

The result of this mashing? Death & Desire becomes a story about a relationship thats not working. The characters cant communicate with each other in a literal sense, one speaks German and the other speaks French despite their affection for each other.

Its a challenge for Mokrzewski to alternate between two musical styles, keeping them distinct but suggesting a link between them.

One key thing for me is not having the Messiaen bleed into the Schubert, smiles the pianist. I want to have the romantic music clean, not a rendition of Schubert thats been influenced by later composers.

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