There’s a sense, as A Synonym for Love progresses, that we’ve gone back a bit in time. Not because we’re at an opera written in 1707, but because everything’s so stylish and clever and fresh. I would not have predicted that mixing a lost Handel cantata with Kiss Me, Kate (which is itself mixed with Taming of the Shrew) and setting the whole business in the Gladstone Hotel with a fourteen-piece baroque ensemble (including a theorbo) – well, it could have been a mess. But instead, it was a marvel.
Audience members are required to choose a character to follow through the opera, which means that one could – in theory – see the performance three times to get the full range of the story. I followed bisexual non-monogamist Clori (Traci Smith Besette), and my husband agreed to follow spying butch Theresa (Emily Atkinson). Phil (Scott Belluz), the third of our trio, had his own entourage as we chased through the hotel*, each listening to a portion of the story. The musicians split and reconstituted several times during the performance, appearing in all manner of fashions and combinations – a quintet in one hotel room, a trio beside a bar cart, a lonely cellist striking a perfect romantic note on the green roof.
I suspect this piece works because it combines the right mix of ingredients, rather than relying on any one. The English libretto is accessible, and at times even funny, if not perhaps always as lyrical as I would have preferred. The singers are talented enough to carry the score, and have enough acting skills to be in love and jealous, at least. The Gladstone gimmick utterly works, in part because we feel festive as we do it and in part because they have clearly gone to great lengths – the sets are sumptuous and beautifully realized, and some of the hotel’s public spaces have been all but transformed to suit the performance. Julie Fox deserves every murmur of praise she got from the opening-night audience. The whole performance feels a bit like a long and secret in-joke in the best possible way, as though the audience has happened into something wonderful and been allowed to stay. If occasionally you can’t hear something very well, or you miss a bit because the person beside you keeps rooting around in her handbag, you don’t complain.
I am a particular fan of baroque music, and the music is marvelous – the musicians are so talented, and the large ensemble (under the direction of Ashiq Aziz) really brings a lot of richness even if the acoustics are not always ideal. And Belluz is a countertenor, a part that’s enjoying a little revival recently and all to the good if you ask me (and Handel, who wrote frequently for the countertenor male voice).
It’s a little difficult to say whether this is for everyone. I think that to enjoy it you need to enjoy a little whimsy sometimes more than technical perfection; you should probably not be an opera purist. But if you can imagine opera after it has had a shot and a beer and a little makeout session with someone to whom it may or may not be married – and the idea appeals – see this.
– A Synonym for Love plays at the Gladstone Hotel, 1214 Queen W
– Performances through Aug 31 (except 25 Aug) at 7pm
– Ticket prices range from $30 to $42, and can be had online or by calling 1-800-838-3006.
photo of Traci Smith Besette by John Lanauer. Photo of cellist by the author.