"You're evil, you're evil; screw you, slut," is the biting denunciation by soprano Emily Atkinson. Sung at full throttle, her words echo through the third-floor sitting room of the Gladstone, where a harpsichord and cello, with accompanying players, have magically appeared. After shots of tequila with the chambermaid -- our cheerful guide and herder, Marjorie Chan -- we race into the stairwells at the back of the Gladstone and off to confront Atkinson's lesbian lover, who has just been revealed to be bisexual. It is a lot more fun than any other opera I've had the pleasure of seeing.
A Synonym for Love
is an adaptation of George Frederic Handel's 1707 cantata Clori, Tirsi e Fileno.
The piece has been transformed by Volcano Theatre into a romp that questions the validity of love and open relationships. The plot is soap-opera standard -- with the added spice of lesbianism -- but updated into English and characters that are easy to identify with and understand. That they express themselves with glorious sound is just a bonus.
The show begins in the ballroom, where the three characters arrive for their stay and liaisons -- accompanied by a 14-piece baroque orchestra that emits gorgeous sonics. All audience members are given colour-coded wristbands that let the guides and staff know which character is to be followed. I have elected to follow Theresa -- a trek that is deemed the most physically active. Luckily for me, she is also the feisty, spurned lesbian lover, so I can relate on a very basic level. Before the show begins the three guides gather in a stairwell. Guide Derek Kwan is doing an impressive batch of push-ups to prepare himself for the event -- and he's the guide for the lowest level of physical activity. What have I agreed to?
At first the language is a little difficult to comprehend -- the trills and contortions needed to create such wonderful sounds distort the words slightly -- but the earcatching melodies and raw emotions of Atkinson make everything understandable. First stop is the Art Bar, which has been transformed into a trashed hotel room complete with scattered liquor bottles, a harpsichordist using the mini-bar as a perch and the very sexy cellist Anthony Bacon, who is on loan from his day gig as the principal cellist of the Thunder Bay Symphony -- our loss that he will leave town after A Synonym for Love
's run. The musicians create beautiful music as Atkinson rages and further trashes the room at a technical and emotional pitch that is truly mesmerizing. She decides to confront her lover and her consort, and we are off up another stairwell. It is comforting amongst the disorientation to find Bacon on the third floor, as well, and then yet again playing mournfully on a grassy rooftop overlooking FreshCo while we race down a fire escape and around the building -- he must be getting even more exercise than us lugging around that cello.
The finale is the only time that critical faculties kick in -- it has just been too much fun and the vocals are intoxicating. Countertenor Scott Belluz, given an unfortunate -- but very apropos for the Gladstone -- hipster look, has a stunning, resonating voice. Atkinson is so endearing in her anguish that judgment is impossible, but for the first time I marvel at being so close to such powerfully emotive sound -- the stereotypical little girl with a big voice but pushed to the nth degree. Opera is the Olympics of singing, and all three are medal winners, especially for making it look easy. By the time Atkinson and Tracy Smith Bessette face off in a catfight to rival Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge in Johnny Guitar
, the audience is absorbed in the action and rooting for their favourite. I admit I did guffaw when Atkinson sang, in ringing tones, "Heartless bitch!" but then opera is heightened emotions and often teeters on the edge of farce -- credit to the cast and creators for keeping A Synonym for Love
emotionally real while transporting the audience into a heightened state of musical passion.
Each audience member will have a slightly different experience -- partner in crime and opera virgin Phil Villeneuve followed Belluz and has a totally different take on the story, but he was similarly enraptured (maybe because he spent more time in the bedroom with Belluz). It will not be his last opera. A Synonym for Love
has proven to be a gateway drug to high art. As fond as I now am of my plucky lesbian, I would tackle a different character if I were lucky enough to reattend -- but I sure would hate to miss the melodious sounds of "You're evil, you're evil; screw you, slut."
A Synonym for Love runs till Fri, Aug 31 at the Gladstone Hotel, 1214 Queen St W. gladstonehotel.com
's interview with director Ross Manson, "Highfalutin Tawdriness