Against the Grain Theatre is dedicated to experimentation. One of their experiments consists of an attempt to break down the traditional barrier between song recital and music drama. A clear example was their combination two years ago of Kurtág's Kafka Fragmente and Janácek's Diary of One Who Disappeared. Although the Kurtág is a performance piece, the Janácek would normally be done as a recital. Yet having the Diary staged and acted out (by the wonderful Colin Ainsworth and Lauren Segal) added a great deal to the musical experience.
In their most recent production, "Death & Desire," the directors, Joel Ivany and Topher Mokrzewski, have been careful not to simply repeat the earlier experiment. Whereas the Kurtág and the Janácek had been performed as two discrete halves of the evening, the works in their latest offering, Schubert's Die schöne Müllerin and Messiaen's Harawi, were intertwined. That certainly set up an interesting relationship between the two works, though I was unconvinced by the way the protagonist in the Messiaen became Schubert's Fair Maid of the Mill (as we used to refer to her; this production preferred The Miller's Lovely Daughter). On the other hand, the manner in which the mezzo-soprano became the voice of the brook in the penultimate song of the Schubert cycle was magical.
There was an interesting suggestion in the program that the Messiaen was composed at a time when the composer's first wife first descended into madness. The significance of that certainly came across in the song Doundou tchil, which constituted the end of the first half of the evening and in which the French text disintegrated into something completely incomprehensible.
The performers were Krisztina Szabó as the Woman in Harawi and Stephen Hegedus as the wanderer in Die schöne Müllerin. Szabó was superb throughout. I thought that, in the first half of the evening, Hegedus was better in the lyrical songs than in the more assertive parts, but in the second half he was very fine throughout. The works were interestingly staged by Ivany; and Mokrzewski played the piano with the excellence which we have come to expect from him.