A lost Handel cantata from the 1700s gets a modern adaptation that brings audiences through the rooms, hallways, and staircases of the Gladstone Hotel.
Anyone who attends A Synonym for Love follows their choice of one of three characters, all caught in a tumultuous love triangle. The audience trails behind as the actors travel throughout the Gladstone Hotel’s hallways, staircases, rooms, and lobbies.
The three characters are Clori (soprano Tracy Smith Bessette), a bisexual woman; Theresa (soprano Emily Atkinson), her partner in an open relationship; and Phil (countertenor Scott Belluz), her secret affair. At the start of the show, Clori has just arrived from Calgary for a tryst with Phil. Unbeknownst to them, Teresa has also travelled to Toronto to see for herself if Clori has remained emotionally faithful to her.
The libretto by Deborah Pearson is a modern adaptation of George Frideric Handel’s early and long-forgotten cantata Clori, Tirsi e Fileno, with direction from Volcano Theatre’s Ross Manson and musical direction from CMC’s Ashiq Aziz. It’s a welcome addition to Toronto’s opera scene, and a fine new entry on this city’s growing list of recent immersive-theatre productions. As theatregoers increasingly opt for experiences away from traditional venues and proscenium seating, shows like A Synonym for Love are poised to capitalize on the trend.
Immersive theatre tends to emphasize audience participation, but that’s not to say there aren’t any rules in A Synonym for Love. In fact, there are many, and they are strict. Orders from the show’s “guides” (Marjorie Chan, Jasmine Chen, and Derek Kwan) must be obeyed. Also, don’t speak to the characters, don’t get in their way, watch your step, and keep up.
In contrast with shows like New York City’s Sleep No More, where audiences flood into the McKittrick Hotel and are left to their own devices to explore, A Synonym for Love has its viewers on short leashes. When an audience member chooses a character to follow, they are committing their entire experience to that character’s story. By following Theresa, for instance, we understand her heartbreak and hers alone, which makes the show’s climax seem uneven. Clori says she loves both her dubious lovers, but to know her true feelings requires a second viewing (and a second ticket).
Thematically, it works. As the three characters repeat in the finale, “There’s no synonym for love; it’s different for us all.” They accept the impossibility of knowing the true feelings of one’s significant other.
Strict though they are, the show’s trajectories through the Gladstone lead to some truly impressive moments. In Theresa’s story, the discovery of her sitting tormented in her ramshackle room was magical, as was following her rage-filled sprint up the stairs into a lobby, where the CMC’s orchestra was waiting for her. Perhaps most memorable was exiting out onto the street, as a lone cello player played a sad song on the Gladstone’s green roof for audience members and passersby alike.
The music, supported by the accomplished voices of Atkinson, Smith Bessette, and Belluz—along with a skilled orchestra complete with Baroque instruments like the harpsichord and archlute—is approachable and emotional. In fact, that’s how the entire production could be described. A Synonym For Love is an intriguing way for modern audiences to unlock the beauty of opera and classical music.