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theatre review

Chris Abraham, director of Musik Für das Ende, pictured in this file photo.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The Canadian contemporary music company Soundstreams, known for difficult and cerebral works, has mounted a music and theatre production about the life and ideas of admired Quebecois composer Claude Vivier (1948-1983), whose life was rough and tumultuous and whose music was cold, luminous and haunting. The production, titled Musik Für das Ende (which is the name of one of two Vivier pieces performed during the show), is at Toronto's Crow's Theatre, a glittering new building in a formerly industrial quarter.

The show, directed by Chris Abraham, begins as a play, with the composer himself nervous to enter his apartment in Paris in 1983, afraid that a stranger is inside. Vivier is played by the remarkably intense and convincingly jumpy Montreal actor Alex Ivanovici, speaking very naturally in French and English. His monologue, written by Zack Russell, provides a dense portrait of a brilliant and tortured man, whose friends, leaving messages on his answering machine, are worried about his fast and dangerous life. Vivier has been picking up a lot of rough guys at random for sex and seems self-destructive. And he is trying to finish a musical composition.

The action moves to a dim subway platform – cleverly rendered by sharp lines of light, a purely menacing space – where Vivier's last work, Glaubst du an die Unsterblichkeit der Seele? (Do you believe in the immortality of the soul?) – is sung by metro passengers shuffling up and down as if mesmerized by a premonition of death. Indeed, on this platform is the young man who the real Vivier picked up and who, in 1983, stabbed the composer to death in his apartment. (The act here is subtly, not graphically, represented.)

This is very much music of the 1970s, reflecting Vivier's late modernist European influences (he studied with Stockhausen and was praised by Ligeti). Ghostly yet soaring voices, trained to classical perfection (the clear soprano of Adanya Dunn is particularly notable in its purity), overlaid and yet refusing to work together as melody, with dark synthesizer underlay, like the voices of concrete architecture. One is tempted to call it brutalist opera.

An earlier Vivier work is then performed, by an ensemble of voices, Musik Für das Ende, composed in 1971. This is almost an ambient work, relying on one repeated and gradually morphing motif, a few chanted words that sound very much like Sanskrit mantras, with individual voices emerging and disappearing like fishes darting about in a dark tank. The singers are also actors, babbling to themselves in private monologues of anxiety or conversations n foreign tongues as they group, dressed in black, and separate and then regroup around tiny hanging and swinging lights. The spoken segments are improvised by the actors, drawing on their own stories.

This is at once beautiful and troubling. The repeated melody is the kind of thing one associates with prayer or meditation -- the layers of sound lush and complex, exploring overtones and texture -- and yet the mood is unmitigatedly sombre, even despairing, the ambience one of a witches' coven rather than a celebration.

As if in competition with all this misery, medieval church singing is played from above by an invisible (recorded) choir; it is perhaps a reminder of a more reassuring ontology.

Vivier appears in the middle of this, asking anguishedly "Who am I? Where am I going?" (a rather heavy-handed and unnecessary touch, I thought). At the end a small child emerges into this dark confabulation, representing rebirth. However she singing the same questions, as if even her innocence cannot escape the existential end-game that awaits her.

In his opening monologue, the composer is presented as searching for an ending for his new piece; and here is his own ending, his music for the end.

One can see why an interest in Vivier's music often goes hand in hand with a fixation on his biography. Accounts say he was egotistical, independent and bold. An orphan adopted by a poor family, he was openly homosexual from an early age, and indeed expelled from a seminary at sixteen for same. His violent death as a hedonistic seeker is here seen as tragic drama, and his music is seen as autobiographical. And this period – a time of a great flourishing of Quebecois culture, the period of Michel Tremblay, the end of the FLQ, the last gasp of the Quiet Revolution – is of course glamorous. By framing Vivier's sombre and intellectual music in a narrative about his life, Soundstreams have given us greater access to it and to this now-distant period. This is a gorgeous, slick and clever production.

Musik für das Ende runs until November 4 at Crow's Theatre, 354 Carlaw Avenue, Toronto.