Saturday, March 2, 2013

Review: (Toronto) Kafka / Janáček / Kurtág

(photo credit: Darryl Block)
joel fishbane

A surreal and eclectic event, Against the Grain Theatre’s presentation of two little known operas is one of the more unusual theatrical experiences in recent memory. Even opera buffs might frown at the mention of György Kurtág’s Kafka-Fragments op. 24 and Leoš Janáček’s The Diary of One Who Disappeared – and for good reason. They’re frown-worthy works, full of challenges, experiments and discomfort. Yet in the end they remain rewarding pieces that are given an elegant, minimalist production by a Toronto company that prides itself on being a “band of rogue arts makers”.

“You’re officially the most eclectic audience in Toronto,” said Artistic Director Joel Ivany in his opening remarks and if that was true, then we were rewarded with an equally eclectic work. Kurtág’s Kafka-Fragments takes its text from the various diaries and letters of famed German misanthrope Franz Kafka. A duet for soprano and violin (in this case, Jacqueline Woodley and Kerry DuWors, respectively), there’s no plot or story. Instead, snatches of Kafka’s musings are set to music, all of it underscored by the dissonant and sometimes playful violin.

Kafka’s philosophies, poems and micro-fictions are always food for the brain and not without their humour. (“Once I broke my leg: it was the most wonderful experience of my life.”) The lack of story makes this piece a challenge for both the audience and the performers, though Woodley and DuWors manage to create something of a rapport with one another. The violin soon becomes an essential part of Ivany’s simple staging. Woodley ducks behind DuWors at times and even makes her a character in one of her micro-narratives, a Chekhovian tale about some violinists on a train.

Needless to say, the singers prove their mettle

Woodley’s voice is a luscious thing to hear and there’s a wonderful cohesion with DuWors’ violin; the two complement one another in a way that’s rarely achieved. 

Exactly what you get out of Kafka-Fragments has everything do with you; this is performance as poetry and as such it is an entirely subjective experience. I found the lack of traditional narrative bewildering; the people around me, on the other hand, were so mesmerized they barely moved. 

More traditional is Czech composer Leos Janáček’s The Diary of One Who Disappeared, a one-act song cycle in which a man (Colin Ainsworth) struggles with his lust for a local gypsy girl (Lauren Segal). First performed in 1921, its libretto reportedly comes from a series of poems that deeply affected the composer. Ainsworth’s nameless man grapples with his desires as he struggles to choose between the gypsy and the conventional life. A trio of sopranos round out the company, although their appearance is sadly brief and lacking in narrative necessity.  

Needless to say, the singers prove their mettle, with Ainsworth’s tenor voice bearing most of the weight of Janáček’s score. Although it’s sung entirely in Czech, Ainsworth and company are so affecting in the roles that the basics of the story still came through. Nor did the performers shy away from Janáček’s central theme, capturing the lust of youth every time they embrace - or do other things - while lost in the woods. 

The entire event is taking place at the Extension Room, a converted warehouse in Toronto’s distillery district. It’s a found space that comes complete with coat rack, bar and a single bathroom that somehow survived the onslaught of people during intermission. Ivany and designer Michael Gianfrancesco have done a lot with very little, creating minimalist staging that envelopes the audience. Kafka-Fragments is a staged-reading, but Diary is fully staged and the set complements the text, with Gianfrancesco creating a long winding path that echoes physically the uncertain journey of Ainsworth’s heart.

The evening is a two night event and it’ll all be over on March 2, but this won’t be the last Toronto will hear from Against the Grain. Since 2011, they have produced several concerts and productions, including Puccini’s La Bohème and Britten’s Turn of the Screw. But they seem equally happy to explore lesser known works so it’s likley that whatever they do next, it’ll continue to introduce audiences to the more unconventional pieces of the operatic world.

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