Passion by Elyse Sommer
The passions aroused by the 1994 Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's adaptation of Ettorae Scola's film Passione d'Amore, which was in turn an adaptation of I.U. Tarchett's novel Fosca , were as often negative as positive. Though it won four Tonys (best musical and score for Sondheim, best book for Lapine and best performance for Donna Murphy's Fosca), critics and audiences found its s libretto too dark and operatic for a Broadway musical, and its score too challenging. Yet, like all of Stephen Sondheim's work it has stood the test of time and deepened the richness of Sondheim's music and revealed the brilliance with which he and Lapine refined a nineteenth century gothic character into a woman who's obsessed yet heroic and whose love has a transforming effect on the object of her obsession.
While the televised version of the original production starring Murphy, and co-starring Marin Mazzie as Clara and Jere Shea as Giorgio, is preserved as a video any live performance of Passion is a not to be missed opportunity for anyone who appreciates what musical theater can be. That opportunity came for Philadelphia theater goers a couple of seasons ago courtesy of the Wilma Theater and more recently for DC residents and visitors during the extended Sondheim birthday celebration at the Kennedy Center. And now New Yorkers have through May 4th to catch a very fine production at the charming Dicapo Opera house which miraculously remains an undiscovered treasure to many otherwise savvy music lovers.
The story is a mid-nineteenth century romance. The affair between Giorgio, a dashing army captain, and Clara, his lusty married mistress, is interrupted by an assignment to a desolate army outpost. The love affair is kept alive through passionate epistolary exchanges. Complications set in when Fosca, the strange and sickly niece of the company commander falls madly in love with the young officer. It is a love as incurable as her unspecified but serious ailment. Fosca's affection puts a tremendous strain on Giorgio but even as he tries to escape her attentions there is something about the intensity and sincerity of this plain young woman's love that makes him realize that something is lacking in his relationship with the more attractive and robust Clara.
Admirable as Lapine's ability to give a modern psychological sensibility to a gothic tale and let true love triumph -- albeit very briefly-- Passion's claim to being a masterpiece comes from the music. The melancholy mood of the lush score and emotionally charged lyrics is smartly offset by brief , tempo changing military interludes sung by Giorgio's fellow soldiers.
In Beth Morrison Dicapo director Michael Capasso has found a marvelous Fosca. The attractive Ms. Morrison manages to look plain, without any extreme makeup tricks. She captures Fosca's frailty and sadness but also her dignity. And, of course, she sings beautifully, especially the gorgeous "Loving You is Not a Choice-- it's who I am." Paris Cheffer is tall and handsome as Giorgio should be. He makes the journey from sexual adventuring to understanding true love quite convincingly and, like Ms. Morrison, does full justice to songs like "No One Has Ever Loved Me." Amanda Winfield, who I liked very much as Rose Maurant in last season's Street Scene acquits herself well even though she didn't quite banish my memories of the Broadway version's Clara of Marin Mazzie. The three main performers are well supported with the entire twenty-one member cast assembled on stage for the finale.
The same team that so aptly staged Street Scene is again on hand. Set designer John Farrell's props for the various scene shifts -- Clara's bed, Fosca's bedroom, the officer's dining room, a garden, -- are rolled on and off stage with a minimum of fuss and noise. An impressionistic wall of steps surrounds the main playing area and works well for the story telling structure, especially for the scenes where Clara sings her epistles in Milan while Giorgio is reading them in the army dining room and the flashbacks to Fosca's earlier years with her parents. My one quibble with an otherwise well-acted and sung production is that the twenty-one piece orchestra plays a bit too loudly.
If you've never been to the Dicapo, this last offering of their season may well arouse your passion for small-scale, reasonably priced, high quality operas and musical theater.
Review of Dicapo's Street Scene
Review of Philadelphia production of Passion
Mendes at the Donmar
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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