August 24, 2003: 'Passion' almost a masterpiece
The Chicago Tribune
The occasion was
"Passion" (1994), a show preceding the most recent Sondheim
project, "Bounce," by a full nine years. "Passion"
and "Bounce" make for a fascinating contrast. They're as different
as the two female leads of "Passion," who serve as clashing
symbols of darkness and light: The sickly, obsessive Fosca and exuberant,
easygoing Clara, mistress of Giorgio, the military captain whose battles
of the heart overtake his life.
LuPone, McDonald and, as Giorgio, Michael Cerveris transcended the original Broadway production's principals. Many would argue the point particularly regarding Fosca, played memorably in New York by Donna Murphy. But something has happened to LuPone in the past few years. She's finally shaking that Andrew Lloyd Webber "Evita" and "Sunset Boulevard" impulse to kill, kill, kill. She has become more confident and quietly authoritative in her performances. Her Fosca didn't have the scarifying intensity Murphy brought to the role. LuPone, however, made her a more subtly controlling figure, to the benefit of this defiantly discomfiting musical.
"Passion" upends the traditional "Beauty and the Beast" fairy tale. Instead of Unsightly, Ambiguous Monster falling for Pretty Girl, in "Passion" based on the 1981 Ettore Scola film "Passione d'amore," in turn based on a late-19th Century novel by Iginio Ugo Tarchetti we have a scandalous tale of Handsome Military Man seduced by Beastly, Grasping Yet Somehow Irresistible Female.
So why a three-quarters masterwork? A moment, or a series of moments in song, must occur to make us believe Giorgio would give himself over to Fosca willingly, however tangled Giorgio's motives and feelings. This was my third "Passion," and I still can't find those moments. Sondheim and librettist James Lapine do all they can to build them, yet there it is. Or rather, there they aren't.
Yet it's a mark of Sondheim's genius that certain other songs, notably "I Read" (in which Fosca tells Giorgio what books mean to her existence) and the gorgeous "Loving You," solve a huge dramatic puzzle. In "Loving You" Fosca calmly lays out to Giorgio her reason for staying alive. In this song, all is perfect; our understanding of Fosca's obsession becomes complete, even if we never get behind Giorgio's eyes in return.
"Passion" doesn't give its supporting characters much to sing about. The material assigned to Giorgio's fellow soldiers, stranded in a remote outpost, is pretty routine by Sondheim's high standard (grumblings about "military madness" and gossip about the colonel's frightening cousin). For Ravinia, director Lonny Price trimmed bits of the score and libretto.
McDonald's Clara made "Passion" a fully drawn triangle in performance. Just as LuPone's Fosca saved the fireworks for just the right passages, McDonald shrewdly intimated Clara's charming duplicity and self-delusion at key junctures. With his slightly haughty moodiness and emotional reserve, Cerveris was far superior to Broadway's Giorgio, Jere Shea. Shea came off as a lunk, a pair of singing sideburns. With Cerveris, you sensed a more complicated and fundamentally unfinished character, in a good way.
Many reboarded the Ravinia special back to Chicago unconvinced. Several comments overheard on the way back were on the order of, "This is entertainment?" (Verbatim quote from one woman: "This is entertainment?") With "Passion," though unlike the more recent, in-progress Sondheim musical "Bounce" you're dealing with a musical that knows what it's about. You may not go for it, or on some fundamental level even buy it. But at Ravinia, no little thanks to a fine 42-piece orchestra conducted by ace musical director and longtime Sondheim collaborator Paul Gemignani, audiences heard and felt every beat of this score's daunting heart.
The cast took care
of the rest.
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