A SYNONYM FOR LOVE music by George Frideric Handel, libretto by Deborah Pearson. An Underground/Opera production by Volcano Theatre and Classical Music Consort at the Gladstone Hotel (1214 Queen West). Runs through August 31, nightly at 7 pm. $42, preview $20, under 30 and seniors $30. 416-800-838-3006 or volcano.ca. See listing. Rating: NNNN
You've probably never had a cardio workout when listening to opera, unless you're plugged into an iPod recording while on the treadmill.
But A Synonym For Love, a striking Underground/Opera production presented by Volcano Theatre and Classical Music Consort, will have you running from room to room and up and down stairs at the Gladstone Hotel as you follow the confrontations involving partners Clori (Tracy Smith Bessette) and Theresa (Emily Atkinson) and Clori's new lover, Phil (Scott Belluz).
Deborah Pearson's libretto takes a 1707 Handel cantata that features two shepherds in love with the same flirtatious shepherdess and gives it a distinctly modern twist; open relationships and degrees of faithfulness are part of her emotionally complex tale.
The bisexual Clori, who lives in Calgary with Theresa, a one-woman woman, has gotten involved with Torontonian Phil and comes to have a tryst with him at the Gladstone. Theresa follows to spy on the pair, determined to wreak havoc if necessary.
For the first and last sections of the play the audience, invisible witnesses to the characters' loves and losses, sits in the hotel ballroom watching the tale play out. For the middle half hour, viewers split up and follow one of the characters - you choose the person when you get your ticket - in scenes that are sometimes solos and sometimes duets.
I chose Atkinson's Theresa, who has the fastest pace (and the most stairs to climb) as she watches the other two, feels miserable over quite a few drinks in a disheveled room (Julie Fox's design echoed the moods of each character), and, at the suggestion of a housemaid (Marjorie Chan), develops the courage (through more drinking) to confront Clori.
The ending is a bittersweet one, the characters realizing in a final trio the difficulties of being in love, unsure how to satisfy everyone involved.
The production, directed by Ross Manson and conducted by Ashiq Aziz, is an exhilarating one, and not just because of the exercise involved. The three singers are emotionally and dramatically committed to their roles, with Atkinson (I saw more of her, of course, than the other two) a coloratura fury in her anger aria and meltingly touching in others in which she expressed her sense of betrayal.
The high voices - the singers are two sopranos and a countertenor - are always pleasing, though Smith's lyrics aren't always sung as clearly as they might be.
Manson's direction is often inventive, especially when he has characters intersect with each other in the middle section. In one memorable scene, the audience lines up on a several-floor staircase as the characters interact with each other on various landings; we look up and down to catch the action. In another, Theresa erupts at her absent partner with the totally un-Handelian lyric "You're evil, screw you, slut."
The 14-member baroque orchestra, finely led by Aziz, gets as much of a workout as singers and audience; look for them in various combinations all over the Gladstone, including the green roof next to the fire escape.
A Synonym For Love is Handel for today, a love story without a resolution, told with a modern sensibility and gorgeous melodies. It's the most original show in town.