Against the Grain’s Death/Desire opened last night at the Neubacher Shor Contemporary Gallery. It’s structured around Schubert’s Die Schöne Müllerin cycle with the songs of Messiaen’s Harawi: Chants d’amour et de mort interpolated, though not in the usual order. Thus there are two characters; The Man, singing the Schubert; who is very much the conventional questing lover of 19th century poetry, and The Woman, singing the Messiaen (mostly) who is something very different from the young girl of Wilhelm Müller’s texts. The piece is staged with both characters on stage most of the time and interacting in ways that reflect the music and don’t.
What makes the piece fascinating is that what we see is two very different worlds intersecting, never merging and ultimately blowing apart. And we see this on many different levels. Let me try and encapsulate the worlds. The Man sings music that’s tonal, familiar and very “safe” (to us anyway, however innovative it was in its day). His world is the conventional 19th century poetic landscape of romantic (usualy unrequited) love linked to an essentially tamed Nature (that’s what millers do isn’t it?). He might have popped up to provide local colour in a Jane Austen novel. The Woman, on the other hand, seems to have escaped from The Rite of Spring. She is of a different, more visceral kind of Nature. Her music is incredibly multi-layered and never quite comfortable. The words are a mix of bizarre, disturbing images and of even more disturbing made up language. She is fierce. Rather than the beautiful, if unattainable miller’s daughter she is the Female that devours her mate after sex. This essentially pagan creature who oscillates between Eros and Thanatos with never a hint of Agape is a remarkable creation for the deeply devout Catholic Messiaen.
These two worlds are reflected in Joel Ivany’s staging. Whenever some real connection seems to be happening between the characters it’s the Schubert and then it gets blown violently apart by the Messiaen. It’s like two particles drawn towards each other only to find that at very close distances a more powerful exclusion principle operates. Right at the end Ivany messes with us by giving The Woman some of the lines in the valedictory last song of the cycle. Are we to see a reconciliation and an ending based on womantic wuv? Of course, not. The Messiaen is back to conclude the piece as The Woman walks away, indifferent to her dead lover/prey. This is all supported by an evocative, brightly coloured lighting plot by Jason Hand.
There are three performers. Krisztina Szabó sings the woman with terrifying intensity. I’ve heard recordings of Harawi but I’ve never heard (or seen) anything like this. At times she’s statelt and at others embodies the character in a quite unique way. There’s a passage of “made up words” in Katchikatch les étoiles which she sings shuttling to and fro across the arch that separates the two halves of the performance space like an angry bird wagging its finger (if birds had fingers). Hard to describe but worth seeing. The only other person I’ve seen sing crazy difficult modern music while conveying character with such intensity is Barbara Hannigan.
Set against Szabó it’s hard for Stephen Hegedus to come over as more than a foil for her. He sings a very good Die Schöne Müllerin. It’s clear, accurate and musical and, while I might think it over operastic in a conventional recital setting, it’s an entirely legitimate approach here. He also moves well and does everything the production needs him to do.
Then there is Topher Mokrzewski at the piano. Really great collaborative pianists are so much more than accompanists. They always seem to be reinventing their part anew, just as a great singing performance will make a familiar work seem entirely fresh. Topher does this with the Schubert. Perhaps it’s fanciful that his performance brought to mind Ben Britten’s famous recording of Winterreise with Peter Pears but it did. Add to this that he made the crazy, crazy Messiaen sound easy and was able to switch gears between the two seamlessly; over and over.
The only reservation I have about this show is the performance space. The gallery is split asymmetrically by a brick wall with a wide opening in it. Most of the action takes place east of the wall and most of the audience is to the west on not very raked seating. A small number of privileged people are seated to the sides of the “east space”. The whole effect is rather like a medieval cathedral where the laity are kept well distant from the miracle of the Mass. I’m quite tall and was sitting in the sixth row of the “west space” but, frankly, I couldn’t see a lot of what happened. Thank goodness there wasn’t a rood screen.
This is a remarkable show. It runs tonight through Friday and what few tickets are left are available here. If you do plan to go it’s probably worth the extra few bucks for the on-stage seating.
Photo credits: Darryl Block