Amazing Journey

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Concerts and Recitals
Opera News
By Mark Thomas Ketterson

On August 23, Ravinia continued its exploration of the Stephen Sondheim canon with a semistaged Passion, Sondheim's moody adaptation of Ettore Scola's primally disturbing film Passione d'Amore. Few compositions divide opinion so irascibly -- some abhor the piece while others are obsessively caught in its spell, much as the anti-heroine Fosca is with her Giorgio. Though it plays quite operatically, Passion -- unlike Sweeney Todd -- has not realized a similar place of affection in the hearts of opera-lovers, and indeed the piece has a more select appeal. The work's unbroken musical structure and darkly labile sound-world do not appeal to all tastes, and James Lapine's libretto, with its frequent discourses on the nature of human emotion, sometimes threatens pontification. There is a great beauty in this score, however, and a permeating complexity of affect, as even in its optimistic moments one is aware of an ever-present, quiescent sadness. Fosca's transformation by love is beautifully captured in the minor to major progression of her music, just as Clara's increasing disallusionment is reflected by an opposite development of her own. One may not find the protragonists fully sympathetic (while watching, yiou may wonder why you should even like these people), but there is an inevitable recognition of self in each of them, and anyone who has ever loved someone desparately cannot help but respond to some facet of this evocative, controversial work.

Audra MacDonald contributed the evening's most memorable performance as the beautiful Clara, her dramatic conception fully realized, her ravishing soprano with its gleaming top providing a superb aural representation of the woman's allure. Patti LuPone is an artist worth traveling miles across frozen tundra to experience. Fosca's vocal writing fit LuPone to a T and provided ample opportunity for her legendary skill at vocal coloring. If there is the slightest niggle with LuPone's achievement in this excruciatingly difficult role, it lies with the task of transforming an unappealing, obsessive stalker into a sympathetic character. A specific sort of vunerability is required that has never been a great part of LuPone's considerable technical arsenal. That said, her embodiment of Fosca's more extroverted dynamics was second to none, a thoroughly convincing assumption. Michael Cerveris repeated his deeply felt, solidly vocalized Giorgio so highly praised in the recent Kennedy Center revival. His performance would have been more effective had he avoided a tendency to layer on the schmaltz in the climaxes, when a more straightforward delivery might be more heartrending. David Darlow's sympathetic doctor, David Girolmo's Colonel Ricci and a fine ensemble of vocalists contributed to an evening of consistant dramatic conviction and satisfying musicality. Lonny Price again proved his mastery of the tricky art of adapting a theater piece for concert presentation, making ingenious use of the score's military rhythms to effect the various shifting of chairs and small set pieces by the ensemble. The musical performance benefited from the utilization of a fully symphony orchestra; Sondheim's preferred conductor, Paul Gemignani, in his Ravinia debut, drew beautiful playing from the Ravinia Festival Orchestra, propelling the work along as the one long aria it is intended to be.

Sondheim, who was present, received a standing ovation during the curtain calls; it was both an emotional outpouring of respect for America's foremost theatrical composer and a display of appreciation for Ravinia Festival's continuing investigation of his works.


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