I was skeptical about the Schubert-Messiaen mashup going in, but the latest AtG offering Death & Desire turned out to be excellent. The closer you look at how Topher Mokrzewski, Joel Ivany and comp. shaped it, the more stirring and intelligent the work shows itself.
Schubert’s 1823 song cycle Die schöne Müllerin and Messiaen’s 1945 Harawi: Chant d’amour et de mort kinda copulate (a highly technical musicological term) here: instead of stand-alone two one-acters, as it were, the songs from each are interwoven and mixed to form a new Gestalt. The structure of the Schubert cycle is almost untouched, while the Harawi deck of cards is thoroughly shuffled, and added onto the Schubert.
The mezzo (Krisztina Szabó, in what’s now my favourite role I’ve ever seen her in) voices Harawi, and the baritone (the very good Stephen Hegedus) the Müllerin, with Mokrzewski at the piano for each. The basic set-up is a woman and a man (feel free to fill in the genders applicable to you) talking—and loving each other—at cross-purposes. One speaks Romanticism, the other the twentieth-century, surrealism, and psychoanalysis; one German, the other French with a smattering of more or less invented words in the vein of the ancient Peruvian language of Quechua, not to mention the onomatopoeic bird-language . The woman gets the music that is more complex and interesting in every imaginable way, but on the downside her emotional expressivity is also off the (Schubertian) charts. While the Schubert has a fairly linear narrative of a young man arriving at a mill, being hired there, falling for the miller’s daughter, ending up broken-hearted and throwing himself into the river, Harawi is Messiaen’s reworking of the Tristan & Isolde myth through the Andean cultures and myths, beheadings and all. It also has something of a narrative in the original lineup, of lovers coming together and entering the otherworld. With his deceptively plain material and simple motives, the man is at the beginning the easiest one to understand and to psychologise. But things get complicated.
The woman opens with “La ville qui dormait”, and later “Bonjour toi, colombe verte”. The two people are already on divergent clocks, because after her melancholy “La ville”, he starts off his cycle with that aimless wander-about, “Das Wandern”, followed by the (c’mon, admit it) silly “Wohin?” enumerating the many restless things he sees that match his own restlessness. He must go down to the brook, where he spots the mill and its house (in “Halt!”).
Hegedus plays him just you may expect, as a bit overeager, sweet chap who likes the tone of his own voice. The woman takes over with “Bonjour toi, colombe verte” in a very different tone against an astonishing canvass of sound coming from the piano, and the man responds with his address to the alter-ego (alter-body?), the brook in “Danksagung an den Bach” and an expression of bravado and his need to impress the millermaid in “Am Feierabend”. A couple of blocks in similar vein later, the woman sings one of her numbers that are veritable mini-operas, “Répétition planétaire” which *also* happens to be about the creation of the world. The chap’s answer? A cheerful, sunny “Morgengruß” (think “Good morning” from Singing in the rain) and “Des Müllerss Blumen” (he’ll plant some flowers for her and hope she’ll notice them). But hey, another one of these numbers in HD coming from the woman, the remarkable “L’escalier redit, gestes du soleil”. The man answers with the song “Mein!” in which we find out that in some way he got his millermaid, she is his (he thinks), and he is celebrating. Act 1 finishes with the woman’s riposte: “Doundou tchil”, performed by Szabó engulfed in anger, puzzlement, disappointment, lyrics largely incomprehensible even after they switch to French.
The blocking so far is extremely simple, with two singers singing to or past each other, walking around the table or sitting down. The lighting changes sometimes, and that is pretty much it. And it’s enough.
The dance of clever juxtaposition continues in Act 2, with the souring on the part of the man and a certain sweetening and resignation in the woman. The “Hunter” song is excised from the man’s songbook, possibly because it would require introducing another character to the stage, but the stuff that follows is there, the man’s sulking and the feeling of betrayal at the millermaid’s real or perceived flirting with the hunter. Near the end, there’s quite a bit of respect to the literal text in both song cycles, and somehow, intriguingly, they converge to a joint ending. “Syllabes” contains the plucking of flowers and removing of petals, and that is also performed before us. The man follows with “Die liebe Farbe” in which the green, previously the colour of their love, is now the colour of his sadness, and of the grass that will cover his grave. “L’amour de Piroutcha” is even sadder, a Liebestod of sorts, operating in the chthonic folk mythology register. Near the very end, the dialogical “Der Müller und der Back”, in which the brook answers to the dying miller, the woman joins the German song as the Brook. (Dastardly smart, guys. A surprise, a relief, a feeling of it being an illusion, a feeling of it being too-late: all this and more provided by those few sung lines.) After the man is laid down and covered in what remains of the flowers, last word given to the woman for “Dans le noir”, the actual ending of “Harawi”.
Remaining performances: June 4 and 5, 8pm, Neubacher Shor Contemporary Gallery.
A word of warning about the performance space. It is—no other way to put it—terrible. Please, AtG: don’t do this to us again. Seriously. Don’t.
In the photos: Krisztina Szabó, Stephen Hegedus and Topher Mokrzewski. Photos by Darryl Block.