Two legendary song cycles:

Die schöne Müllerin (The Lovely Maid of the Mill), verses by Wilhelm Müller, music by Franz Schubert, 1823. The first authentic outpouring of Romantic lieder, acutely sentimental, movingly lyrical.

Harawi, text and piano score by Olivier Messiaen, composed 1945. An eccentric synthesis of expressionist harmony and primitivism, dream-like, enigmatic, surreal.

Apart from vague parallels as sung poetry, any points of contact between the  expressive pair of dramatic works would seem remote, to say the least. But look closer. Seen as moody reflections of one another, a complimentary set of raw emotional chronicles begins to come into focus. Bit by bit, the seemingly opposing pieces are mirrored and magnified.

Bundling the two works together to create a single, intensely psychological myth, perennially daring indie collective, Against the Grain Theatre, has fundamentally redefined the nature and form of the art song experience. Surrounded by the rough brick and cool white walls of Queen St. West’s intimate Neubacher Shor Contemporary Gallery, Stage Director Joel Ivany and Music Director Topher Mokrzewski unveiled their unique vision of Die schöne Müllerin and Harawi as a distinct, organic continuum. The semi-staged, highly charged production, billed as Death/Desire, was as gripping and haunting as it was beautiful.

Narrative, fanciful and somewhat transparent in Die schöne Müllerin and Harawi both, nevertheless provided this startling concert presentation with a number of shared co-ordinates. Story was deftly explored.

Seen in isolation, Schubert’s setting of Müller’s meticulously crafted rhymed stanzas adds resonant notes to a broad emotional arc spanning from sunny cheerfulness to despair and ultimate tragedy.

A young miller’s apprentice abandons his grindstone to wander through the countryside. Encountering a bubbling brook, he follows its playful course until at last he comes to a mill hitherto unknown to him. Marvelling at its rustic charm, he spies the owner’s daughter. The more he gazes on her beauty, the deeper he falls in love. His feelings of yearning and desire turn to frustration when he is unable to find the words to win her attention. Seated beside her on the bank of the millstream, engulfed by silence, he becomes convinced that she is his. His joy is fleeting. Tormented by self-doubt and jealous fantasies, he succumbs to depression and gloom. The brook calls to him, promising release from his suffering in its dark, watery depths. The young Man is heard from no more.

Olivier Messiaen’s Harawi, his self-penned, freeform text similarly brimming with nature personified, frames another sort of picaresque saga, an inner journey of discovery through the landscape of the mind. Here the protagonist is a woman bursting with tenderness and passion, suddenly thrust face to face with the terrifying prospect of her lover’s death. Raging against the frightening reality, she ultimately surrenders to the power of divine will, achieving peace and consolation in the knowledge that the bond of existence that secured her to her loved one lives on in the eternal.

The inter-relationship of the two supremely theatrical tales, perhaps better thought of as waking reveries, was made distinctly evident by Ivany’s acute, finely detailed staging. Recurring symbols and imagery were graphically rendered. The green ribbon of Schubert’s Mit dem grünen Lautenbande (With the Green Lute-Ribbon), a love token from the obsessed young dreamer to his precious Müllerin, became a much-caressed physical manifestation, in The Woman’s hands, of Messiaen’s repeated verbal invocation of the colour green — colombe verte (“green dove”), vert étoile d’amour (“green star of love”), tes tempes vertes (“your green temples”).  A quasi-earth goddess was worshipped in Die schöne Müllerin, the natural order celebrated in Harawi. The blossoms bitterly cursed in Trockne Blumen (Withered Flowers), relics of the young Man’s shattered dreams, were ironically echoed by the bouquet of pure white calla lilies that adorned the body of Harawi’s dead lover. Stripped to the waist, arms outstretched, laid out on a gleaming black slab, the potent, evocative pose spoke of salvation. Death may strike without warning, but love, to Messiaen and Ivany, is clearly everlasting.

Primal expression, although admittedly lurking some considerable distance beneath the gloss and refinement of Die schöne Müllerin, plays a major role in these two works. Schubert’s preoccupation with sexuality, frustrated and/or repressed, would find ample resonance, almost a century later, in Freud’s groundbreaking studies. Harawi’s sense of gritty realism is infinitely more overt. By weaving ritual phrases from the ancient Incan language of the Quechua people, Messiaen’s unravelling of the psyche gains enormous power although, ironically, his source material was entirely second hand. He himself never travelled to Peru. Published collections of indigenous folk songs and dances yielded the inspiration for the composer’s vibrant, restyled transcriptions. Woven into the body of his modern French text, the effect is ecstatic, mystical, a clash of reason and instinct. Death/Desire brought all the darkness and soul of this mercurial Schubert/Messiaen amalgam to light in a thoroughly original blend of voice, gesture and mime.

Communication, or rather its absence, presented AtG’s spellbound audience with a cleverly engineered paradox. The use of three distinct languages on stage, added another stratum of edgy enchantment to an already richly layered creation. Unable to understand or converse with one another, characters were thrown into verbal isolation. Physicality and instinct became hyper-emphatic. Human contact, distilled to its essence, body to body, touch to touch, played out with great sensual impact.

Musical direction was no less bold. Judicious editing in the Schubert and a minor reordering of the Messiaen text resulted in a thrilling flow of superbly varied colours and textures. Mokrzewski’s sound painting in Die schöne Müllerin was exquisite. The cycle overflows with inexpressibly lovely airs shading into artful dissonances. Strophic songs built on repeated melodic quotations, are interwoven with taut through-composed refrains, virtual recitatives. Prevailing motifs and similarly shaped harmonies are used to echo prior ideas, adding new, increasingly bitter tones to the young Man’s tragic adventure. Mokrzewski played with fierce intelligence and insight, his piano a vigorous living voice, gentle and reflective at times, demonstrative and insistent at others. And then there was Harawi — unpredictable, incendiary, dangerous — constantly mutating. Again Mokrzewski dazzled, his unmistakeable, jazz-inflected approach exploding into bursts of pulsating crescendos and jagged, driving chords. His invocation of imitated bird song, a Messiaen trademark, was particularly striking during moments of gentle, radically opposed quietude. Mokrzewski repeatedly gathered the stillness around him, thoughtfully, tenderly, evoking more than a slight note of sadness.

Singing the role of The Woman in Harawi, mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabo astonished, her voice a pure white sheet of pain and suffering, crisp and pristine. Messiaen demands brilliant, blazing top notes from his singer, balanced by an almost limitless lower register, reverberant and robust, to convey the abundance of extraordinary Quechuan chant in his primeval cycle. Szabo soared even higher, dived even deeper than the prescribed paramaters. Doundou tchil, a Peruvian folk dance traditionally accompanied by ankle bells, was delivered with rousing energy, the ringing, onomatopoeic lyrics entrancing and jangling in Szabo’s euphoric styling. Her descent into madness in Syllabes (Syllables) electrified, her rhythmic incantation, the terrified cry of a wild animal — Kahipipas, mahipipas, kahipipas/Pia pia pia!

Bass-baritone Stephen Hegedus was The Man, singing Schubert’s disturbed, restless hero with magnificent expansiveness and control, instantly seizing our attention with his lovely, spirited Das Wandern (Wandering). Hegdus, charismatic and centred, brought a seductive broodiness to his hot-blooded performance, portraying a shy, diffident man of unsounded depths, lonely and alone, on the verge of self-implosion. His touching rendition of Tränenregen (Rain of Tears) was quite simply shattering.

Schubert and Messiaen were far more than gifted song writers, however fresh and innovative their songs may be. These were rebels, shifters of entire mountain ranges of paradigms. With its rapturous, ferocious production of Death/Desire, Against the Grain Theatre has more than earned the right to be included in their company.