Last night we saw the preview of A Synonym for Love at the Gladstone Hotel. The Gladstone has a long and eventful history. Nowadays it’s a boutique “artist” hotel which serves as a performance space and gallery for various indie projects like the one we saw. The work itself is, I suppose, a pastiche. The music is Handel’s long lost cantata Clori, Tirsi e Fileno. It was written when Handel was 21 and isn’t maybe his greatest work but there’s a lot of really good music in it. The libretto is an English text by Deborah Pearson that takes the basic idea of a love triangle and gives it a modern twist. In Ms. Pearson’s story Clori, sung by soprano Traxy Smith Bessette, is a bisexual woman from Calgary in town for a fling with her male lover Phil (countertenor Scott Belluz) at, naturally, the Gladstone. She is followed by her jealous long term partner Theresa (soprano Emily Atkinson). Mayhem ensues. There are also three non-singing roles who act as “guides” to the audience and participate in the drama as hotel employees.
The staging and direction by Ross Manson is extremely interesting. On arrival, audience members are asked which character they want to “follow”. The action begins in the Gladstone ballroom decked out as a restaurant/bar with audience and cast at tables and the band on a platform at one end. There’s an introductory scene of Clori and Phil meeting while Theresa looks on. The acoustics for this were a bit problematic and you probably don’t want to be where we were on the right hand side furthest from the action. Then the fun starts. The three character based groups each take a different route through the hotel and see a different selection of scenes; obviously the ones their character is in. Accompanying musicians similarly group and regrop as required. After about 35 minutes of this the action moves back to the ballroom; now more conventionally set up with a performance space with banked seats either side for the final scenes including the rather fine concluding trio. Our “tour” included a spectacularly trashed bedroom and a glimpse, no more, into Clori and Phil’s love nest. I imagine that featured more prominently on the other tracks. All in all it seemed like a pretty good use of the space.
It’s an intriguing idea and it’s quite a lot of fun though it does mean that one would have to go three times to see everything. It’s also worth emphasising that the three routes require different levels of physical activity. We went with Theresa, the most physically challenging option and it did involve navigating flights of stairs pretty much at a run. There was a couple with two small children in our group who had chosen this option and I rather think they missed a lot as well as having grumpy children as a result. Maybe the producers expected the concept and venue to produce a younger, more mobile audience but what they had was pretty much a typical Toronto opera crowd and it wasn’t easy to shunt them about at the design speed.
The singing and acting was uniformly good. I particularly liked Atkinson’s rather dark toned , almost mezzoish, soprano and she really threw herself into the role as the “betrayed lover” (as she sees it) with abandon. Smith Bessette was much brighter and with more variation of volume and tone and what we heard of her was very pleasing. Belluz isn’t the biggest voiced countertenor out there but he managed well enough in the relatively small but acoustically unhelpful spaces involved and had a good grip on his often complex, sustained vocal line. He also made a good fist of acting the rather bemused Phil who takes a while to realise what he’s caught up in. The band, eleven players on period instruments, under the direction of Ashiq Aziz was excellent. It was great to have something other than just keyboards for a venture of this type.
There are ten more performances between now and the end of the month but I think the venue/concept only allows for about 60 tickets per night so tickets may go quite fast. I suspect this is a show people will be talking about for some time so you might want to get in before they all go.
The credit for all the photographs is John Lauener.