Against the Grain Theatre have another hit on their hands. Joel Ivany once again successfully combines young talent, unusual repertoire and a funky performance space to create a brilliant evening of song and story. This time the space was a yoga studio on Eastern Avenue and the works on offer were the Kafka-Fragments op. 24 by György Kurtág and The Diary of One Who Disappeared by Leoš Janáček. Neither work was written for the stage but both were well suited to Ivany’s sensitive direction and Michael Gianfrancesco’s minimalist “sets”.
First up was the Kurtág performed by Kerry DuWors on violin and soprano Jacqueline Woodley. This was a long dense piece, over an hour, and of extreme musical difficulty. It’s very precisely written but with little in the way of obvious rhythm or melody to help the musicians shape a line. It is though a wonderful match for the fragmentary and frankly weird texts; fragments drawn from Kafka’s diaries. The “stage” design was a couple of clouds of pieces of paper that Jacquie occasionally tore a sheet from.
The drama here was all in blocking and gesture as Jacquie pantomimed text or subtext. It was remarkably energetic given a piece that would be a difficult sing just from a music stand. Musically it was absolutely top notch. I’ve known Jacquie as a brilliant performer of contemporary music for a few years now so she was no surprise. Kerry DuWors was a new name to me and I was most impressed. The rapport between the two was obvious and made for gripping music making.
After the break, with the entire space rearranged we got Janáček’s dark and sexy tale of a farmer’s son who falls in love with a gypsy girl. The set was a “river of mulch” snaking through the performance space and the action played out in a narrow “gangway” between the two halves of the audience rather like AtG’s The Turn of the Screw last year. The principal singers were the rather buff tenor Colin Ainsworth and the darkly seductive mezzo-soprano Lauren Segal. Support was provided by sopranos Leslie Bouza, and Sarah Halmerson and mezzo-soprano Eugenia Dermentzis. Topher Mokrzewski, who else, was at the piano.
Ainsworth and Segal are pretty well known in the Toronto opera scene and I don’t think anyone would be surprised that they sounded very good indeed in the small space. The “chorus” made the most of its relatively limited role and Topher did his thing. Lauren was a very engaged seductress and from my seat about four feet from the action I probably got the closest view of her left thigh that has ever been vouchsafed an opera audience. Not that I’m complaining. One challenge of this piece is that it was sung in Czech and we had a sort of scroll of the English translation rather than surtitles. Surprisingly perhaps I found it quite easy to follow along.
Once again, Against the Grain prove that they are the most happening thing in the Toronto opera scene. This show is on again tonight at The Extension Room but if you can’t make that their next show is a new translation of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro to be performed, appropriately enough, in a wedding/banquet venue.
(All photos filched from the AtG website)