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Opera review: A clever blend of Baroque and modern in A Synonym for Love at the Gladstone Hotel

By John Terauds on August 20, 2012

Emily Atkinson as Teresa in Volcano Theatre and Classical Music Consort production of A Synonym for Love at the Gladstone Hotel (John Lauener photo).

Take something like an opera, give it something like a staging across four floors of a Victorian hotel, and you either have a treat or a disaster on your hands.

Fortunately for the clever troupe of singers, actors and orchestra musicians having the dramatic time of their lives at the Gladstone Hotel until Aug. 31, their modern English adaptation of George Frideric Handel’s 1707 cantata Clori, Trisi e Fileno, renamed A Synonym for Love, is an unqualified success.

Turned into an 85-minute site-specific promenade by Volcano Theatre artistic director Ross Manson and Classical Music Consort director Ashiq Aziz, Monday’s opening performance was a beautifully sung, nicely played mix of reality and fiction, opera and art installation that flowed so smoothly as to belie the intricate and fragile logistics that kept it moving forward.

The plot turns a pastoral love triangle into a slice of 21st century life as Clori, taking advantage of her open relationship with Teresa in Calgary, hooks up with her lover Phil at the hip and romantic Gladstone Hotel. Teresa, in a jealous rage, follows her partner to Toronto. Meanwhile, Phil wants to get serious and is seriously hurt when Clori reminds him that what they have is only casual.

Deborah Pearson has delivered a new English libretto that’s believable yet seamlessly adapted to florid Baroque music. Aziz and his band of merry period-performance musicmakers deliver a cut-and-paste version of Handel’s setting of the cantata with finesse — and some clever little surprises during the course of the show.

Only getting one character’s side of the story doesn’t detract from the fun of being the proverbial fly on the wall as these three lost, lovelorn souls muddle their way through this amorous stew.

When audience members check in at the hotel’s front desk, they are asked which of the three characters they will follow during the opera. Those people with more limited mobility can choose an option that leaves them with less running around the building than being Teresa’s silent entourage, who get to experience every floor and every stairway in the hotel as she careens towards a dénouement.

All three singers — countertenor Scott Belluz as Phil, and sopranos Emily Atkinson as Teresa and Tracy Smith-Bessette as Clori — are exceptionally good as modern characters singing in antique style, each bringing their own sense of rhythm and historically informed ornamentation to Handel’s arias.

The three actors who serve as the audience’s guides — Derek Kwan, Marjorie Chan and Jasmine Chen — also do fine work, integrated with impeccable logic and timing by Manson. The various spaces used in performance were nicely set up and lit by the design and technical crew.

The real beauty of this production is in how it manages to straddle two very different worlds: the artifice of opera and everyday 21st century life. Even as we rushed about following Teresa in my group, the sequence of events and locations never felt distracting or tiresome. Instead, the journey was engaging and stimulating, showing off an old artform in a whole new light.

This is one of those must-see shows that makes for great memories.

For performance and ticket details, click here.

John Terauds

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