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A Synonym for Love: Staged for hipsters, Handel’s opera still sounds sweet

Scott Belluz as Phil Volcano in “A Synonym for Love”

John Lauener

Title
A Synonym for Love
Directed by
Ross Manson
Actors
Tracy Smith Bessette, Emily Atkinson, Scott Belluz
Company
Volcano Theatre and Classical Music Consort
Venue
The Gladstone Hotel
City
Toronto
Year
2012

There's a popular idea floating around the classical music world these days. Its proponents argue that to reach hip audiences, classical music has to make itself heard in hip places. Civic performing arts centres (those glittering culture palaces that cost millions to build) don't appeal to today's cool kids.

Apparently, this was the kind of thinking that inspired Toronto's Volcano Theatre and Classical Music Consort to stage an opera at the Gladstone Hotel – a gentrified yet edgy edifice on Queen Street West. Surely in such a venue their co-production of A Synonym for Love – an updated version of a cantata about a love-triangle composed by George Frideric Handel in 1707 – would attract a trendy young audience.

Yet there was a gulf between theory and practice on Monday evening, when a respectably middle-class audience, including many senior citizens, showed up for opening night. It seems that the Gladstone is a good place to attract people to opera who already like opera.

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However, the old hotel was more than just a backdrop for A Synonym for Love – it was written right into the production. During the performance, audience members were required to move with the singers around the building.

When director Ross Manson sent his cast off in separate directions, the audience also split up, following either soprano Tracy Smith Bessette (as the free-spirited bisexual Clori), or soprano Emily Atkinson (as Clori's faithful lover Theresa) or countertenor Scott Belluz (as Phil, a man infatuated with Clori). For this reason, it was impossible for anyone in the audience to see every scene.

If all this sounds like one of those dinner-theatre murder mysteries presented in old mansions, that's because it was.

And compounding this frankly hokey approach to staging was Deborah Pearson's newly retrofitted libretto for Handel's score. In Pearson's hands, bucolic shepherds and shepherdesses become urbane, sophisticated travelers – spouting lines that could have been outtakes from less successful episodes of Sex and the City.

"You promised you weren't jealous," protests Clori in self-defense, when Theresa catches her in a tryst with Phil in the hotel's "love nest" suite. "That man was just for sex!"

And yet – despite all the ingeniously dubious efforts to bring this work into the 21st century, the glorious music that Handel wrote for his Clori, Tirsi e Fileno, more than 300 years ago, shone through brightly.

All three singers were well cast. We probably won't be hearing any of them in Wagner's Ring Cycle any time soon – but their light, flexible, almost vibrato-less voices, and their affinity for period style, made them ideally suited to this repertoire.

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Smith Bessette brought a lyrical sweetness to her vocal performance that complemented her portrayal of the seemingly innocent (but actually complex) Clori.

Atkinson's strength lay in her dramatic outbursts, and in her dark, inward-looking angst.

And while Belluz has audible breaks in his vocal registers, his high "money-notes" were thrilling to hear.

Add to all this a fine 14-piece baroque ensemble, ably led by Ashiq Aziz (from the harpsichord, with occasional beseeching gestures toward his musicians), and A Synonym for Love fairly overflowed with musical rewards.

Ultimately, it was for musical rather than dramatic reasons that the Gladstone Hotel emerged as an effective venue for this little opera. Thanks to the building's space limitations – and surprisingly good acoustics – the small audience of about 50 was brought face to face with an excellent performance. It's a rare privilege to hear opera sung in such intimate surroundings.

Too bad the hipsters of Queen Street missed it.

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