Review: Colonel Moseley reviews "Passion" from 29.9.2010
This piece is taken from my reviewblog in 2010
Legendary composer Stephen Sondheim's 80th. birthday has seen even greater focus on his work. "A Little Night Music" has been revived to acclaim on Broadway via the Menier Chocolate Factory, "Into the Woods" has been well received in Regents Park and a whole Prom was dedicated to his compositions. Cliche though it may be, despite innumerable accolades including the renaming of a Broadway theatre in his honour, Sondheim's work is like Marmite: you love or hate it; there seems to be no half measure.
Here I put my hand up and admit: I am a Sondheim aficionado. I have been eagerly looking forward to the new production of "Passion" at the Donmar Warehouse. I also admit to having flown to New York to see the piece premiered in 1994 at the Plymouth Theatre starring Donna Murphy, Jere Shea and Marin Mazzie. Later, I saw the production in London's Queen Theatre with Maria Friedman, Michael Ball and Helen Hobson. If the Donmar afforded its usual brilliant treatment to "Passion," we Sondheimistas were in for a treat.
With a book by James Lapine, "Passion" was based on the the brooding neo-Romantic film "Passion D'Amore" (1981) directed by Ettore Scola and the 1869 Italian novel "Fosca" by Igino Ugo Tarchetti.
As ever, the Donmar production ensures that less is more. The small stage with a simple backdrop of three arched windows and erotic frescoed walls creates a steamy, shuttered Milan bedroom, an officer's mess on a remote outpost and even a railway station - with the aid of artfully employed clouds of dry ice in the manner of "Brief Encounter." Excellent performances, simple costumes, perfect lighting and the audience's imagination combine to create effective theatrical illusions.
From the outset, "Passion" is founded on contrasts. Giorgio's lover Clara is healthy, conventionally pretty, has a child and a name that means "light" whereas Fosca is seriously ill, at best "plain", childless and with a name meaning "dark". The book and score juxtapose images and sentiment of light and dark throughout to conjure up and sustain what one authority has called "a highly modulated sense of emotional chiaroscuro."
As with previous productions, this one stands or falls by the quality of performance of the three principals. It opens with the romantic abandon of the clandestine afternoon tryst of handsome officer Giorgio (David Thaxton) with Clara in a bedroom in Milan and their uninhibited enjoyment of "All this happiness/Merely from a glance/In the park."
Scarlet Strallen's Clara is beautiful and acts and sings superbly. The audience is ravished by this exquisite celebration of conventional passionate and romantic love. We have no reason not to conclude that their relationship is not the real thing. It is only as the plot develops and the exploration of the theme of love continues that this is brought into doubt.
"Passion" really takes flight after fifteen minutes or so when Fosca appears. Played by the brilliant Elena Roger fresh from recent triumphs as both Evita and Piaf, Fosca is a sallow-eyed invalid prone to melodramatic attacks of fainting and shocking wails of pain. We learn of her unhappy past conned into marriage by a fake Austrian count and resultant hysterical illness. Fosca is studious and shares Giorgio's keen interest in literature. She soon develops an overwhelming, even malignant obsession about Giorgio that makes him the laughing stock of his cynical brother officers.
Throughout the piece the feverish and claustrophobic atmosphere of Fosca's sickroom is contrasted and almost compounded by the intermittent militaristic blasts of drum and bugle on the remote army base on which the story unfolds. Giorgio's comrades are loud and boorish and their ribald commentary reinforces our sense that Giorgio is untypical and isolated in his genuine efforts to do the right thing by Clara his lover and Fosca his terrifyingly selfish and single-minded stalker.
As the story of the unhealthiest of obsessions unfolds, we were absorbed by the performances of the three principals. Elena Roger possesses that quality as a singer and actress that means one's eyes rarely leave her: utter conviction of performance and a radiant star.
Some critics have found "Passion" heavy going, complaining of a boring, joke free story of obsession with unhummable music. I admit it's not A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Sanitorium, but then it didn't try to be.
True to its title, "Passion" is about exactly that. It is a comprehensive exploration - almost a meditation - on love. It might equally have been called "Aspects of Love" for it seeks to explain and contrast the range of elements involved in that most complex of emotions. Giorgio and Clara's passionate physicality and romanticism are gloriously explored but ultimately found wanting when compared to Fosca's unconditional devotion.
The process of explaining this is arduous since Fosca's hysterical pursuit of Giorgio is painful, pitiful and sometimes almost ridiculous to watch. The audience sympathises with the handsome and fair-minded officer taken advantage of by his genteel though manic stalker.
The depth and validity of Fosca's devotion become crystal clear in a moving scene in the railway station, when she sings: "Loving you/Is not a choice/It's who I am./Loving you/Is not a choice/And not much reason/To rejoice,/ But it gives me purpose/Gives me voice/To say to the world/This is why I live/You are why I live./Loving you/Is why I do /The things I do/Loving you/Is not in my control./But loving you,/I have a goal/For what's left of my life../I will live/And I would die for you."
Elena Roger sang "Loving you" with so much still conviction and simplicity. The audience held its breath and what had been an implausible and possibly irritating tale about a bunny boiler became a lesson about the strength and beauty of an unconditional love, impossible to resist.
To complete the picture and underline the message, Giorgio rejects what might normally have been a plausible and reasonable offer by the married Clara to leave her husband for him when her son is older and at school. Rejecting the proposed logical and sensible, practical arrangement Giorgio sings: "You think that this is love?/Love isn't so convenient./Love isn't something/Scheduled in advance,/Not something guaranteed/You need/For fear it may pass you by./You have to take a chance,/You can't just try it out./What's love unless it's/Unconditional?"
So "Passion" is a serious and ambitious piece, set in shadows. It is melodramatic and oppressive and lacks a conventionally happy ending. It explores the deepest of human emotions in an absorbing way with a moving candour. The libretto handles demanding themes with elegance and brevity and the score reaches rhapsodic heights of lyricism: eminently hummable heights. I regard it as Sondheim's "pocket masterpiece" to which this production did full justice.