Death and Desire
DEATH & DESIRE by Franz Schubert and Olivier Messiaen (Against the Grain Theatre). At Neubacher Shor Contemporary (5 Brock). Runs to Friday (June 5). 8 pm. $35-$70. againstthegraintheatre.com. Rating: NNNN
In a few years, Against the Grain Theatre has quickly become one of the most exciting companies in the city, challenging and transforming our idea of opera, song, theatre and even performance space.
Their latest work, Death & Desire, mashes up Franz Schubert’s lyrical and bittersweet 1823 song cycle Die Schöne Müllerin (The Miller’s Lovely Daughter) with Olivier Messiaen’s wildly rapturous and surreal 1945 Harawi: Chant d’amour et de mort (Song of Love and Death).
But they’re not performed one after the other, Romantic era vs. Modern. They’re juxtaposed in a frequently thrilling manner as Schubert's young wanderer (Stephen Hegedus), clad in white and rhapsodizing about his beloved, meets Messiaen's woman in black (Krisztina Szabó).
He sings in German, she mostly in French, punctuated with a couple of onomatopoeic outbursts. His needs are, at least initially, simple; hers seem neurotic, irrational and more aggressively sexual.
On one level their dynamic evokes the universal inability to communicate, compounded by the fact that the two are from different eras, with different sensibilities. It could also be read, tongue in cheek, as a Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus situation.
But gradually the codependent relationship deepens and becomes darker. These mysterious shifting moods are captured beautifully by director Joel Ivany, especially in Jason Hand's lighting, with squares of bold colours. And the unique space, with its hints of a rural stone archway, helps present a sense of the various existential planes.
The performances are ravishing. Hegedus's rich, resonant baritone evokes a pastoral scene and a growing sense of disillusionment and despair, while Szabó is fierce and committed, her clear voice filling the hall with thrilling passion.
Musical director Topher Mokrzewski's piano accompaniment is sensitive and characterful, especially in the Messiaen, where in some passages high notes trickle repeatedly like the sound of cool rushing water.
My only criticism is that the evening, at two-and-a-half hours, feels long, and some of the interplay between the two singers feels repetitive.
Where Ivany takes Against the Grain is anyone's guess. Their shows always sell out. Longer runs? Bigger venues? I wouldn't want to lose the intimacy.
And I'm very curious to see what he does when he helms a production of Bizet's Carmen for the Canadian Opera Company next season. Will he bring the same inventiveness and imagination to one of the most familiar operas in the repertoire? I expect nothing less.