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An operatic synonym for bittersweet at the Gladstone Hotel

By John Terauds on August 17, 2012

Scott Belluz and Tracy Smith Bessette in Ross Manson and Ashiq Aziz’s A Synonym for Love, adapted from an opera by George Frideric Handel, at the Gladstone Hotel (John Terauds iPhone photo).

The performing arts are an ecosystem where birth and death are forever locked in a passionate tango. The year’s most fascinating operatic gambit — coming to life at the Gladstone Hotel Sunday through Aug. 31 — is a case in point.

First, the sweet part of the story.

Ross Manson, artistic director of Toronto’s innovative Volcano Theatre, has teamed up with Ashiq Aziz, of the Classical Music Consort, to bring opera to the artistically open Gladstone.

Defying the rules of practical staging, the creators have come up with something that will use all four floors of the hotel. They will also present the audience with the novel and unsettling choice of following one of the three characters as they move through different spaces.

The 90-minute opera is called A Synonym for Love. Its musical core and main love-triangle plot elements come from George Frideric Handel’s Cor Fedele (The Faithful Heart), recast with a new, contemporary English libretto by Deborah Pearson.

(Cor Fedele, lost until 1960 and not premiered in London until 12 years ago, began life as Clori, Tirsi, e Fileno, a three-person cantata a 21-year-old Handel wrote during his travels in Italy in 1707, long before he settled in London to become the great composer of Baroque opera.)

Manson and Aziz have embraced the cut-and-paste spirit of that era to tailor the work to their unusual set.

This is Manson’s first opera and his first collaboration with Aziz. The matchmaker, according to Manson, was Now magazine theatre critic Jon Kaplan, who was impressed with Aziz’s early efforts to breathe fresh air on Baroque opera. The duo has spent the last two years with their collaborators on setting the action in the present time at the Gladstone Hotel.

Instead of being an audience, we become eavesdroppers, stalkers and peeping Thomasinas.

The audience is being divided into three groups (with the most agile-looking getting the path with the most stairs, Manson smiles) each of which will follow one of the three characters. Manson and Aziz assure that no element of the plot is lost as the other two characters wander off, but that each third of the audience will get to experience that plot from one point of view.

If an audience member wants to get the other points of view, “they have to come back,” smiles Manson.

The three singers are countertenor Scott Belluz and sopranos Tracy Smith Bessette and Emily Atkinson. There are four harpsichords strategically placed throughout the building, and a total of 14 instrumentalists. (Manson allows that the double-bass player will be allowed to use the hotel’s Victorian brass-cage elevator to get from floor to floor.)

That the musical forces will be good is a given. What we will have to see is whether this can come together into a meaningful theatrical experience.

Here’s a scene between Belluz and Bessette I grabbed with my iPhone yesterday:

Previews start on Sunday (Aug. 19). Opening night is Monday and shows run through to the end of the month. The top ticket price is $42 and the Gladstone is offering a $46 pre-opera dinner downstairs, which needs an advance reservation. You’ll find all you need to know here.

Manson’s eyes danced when I asked him if this experience had whetted his interest to direct more opera, so, with any luck, Toronto will soon have another regular, keen experimenter working in this artform of endless possibilities.

Now for the bitter news.

On my way out of the Gladstone yesterday, I found Aziz, the show’s musical director, sitting at his harpsichord at the back of the Ballroom, hard at work with a heavily marked-up score in front of him.

Ever since seeing his first production, Handel’s Acis and Galatea at the Summerworks festival in 2008, I’ve been rooting for Aziz, his ideas, and his concert projects, which have included a multi-programme Handel Festival at St James Cathedral. He and his former theatre-director partner, Patrick Eakin Young, outdid themselves two summers ago in a strange and mesmerizing staging of Handel’s Orlando and Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire in a sweltering west-end shed.

Aziz, who grew up in Toronto, returned to his home city as an enthusiastic 23-year-old in 2006 after studies in London, England. He had grand plans and great ideas, and had a knack for attracting fine young talents to his side.

He was also dependent on his parents, the demands of our arts councils, the kindness of patrons and the sustained interest of what over the last few seasons is turning out to be an increasingly fickle Toronto audience.

So, despite what looks like the start of a magnificent new collaboration, Aziz told me yesterday that he is putting his metaphorical baton back into its case as soon as the show is over, to begin a new life as a University of Toronto Law student.

He has a steady girlfriend and, as a 29-year-old, is seeing the need to think seriously about timing a family, and this just wasn’t going to be possible with Classical Music Consort.

Aziz insists he’s going to keep a hand in music, but anyone who has tried to practice an instrument after a full day of studying something else or working at demanding job knows that music is a high-maintenance partner who doesn’t handle infidelity well.

John Terauds

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