No light entertainment, but still bewitched ~
To the trombone sounds of a bizarre military march, a tight embraced couple makes love until thei common climax. While the disharmonic sounds of the overture gather to the theme-melody the two of them roll kissing in Italian silk sheets. No doubt the whole musical is about love. Stephen Sondheim takes again care of an old topic and asks for the nature and the meaning of love. Two hours later we know the answer: it has to be painful and consuming, full of privation and bittersweet. Just like the audience should feel about Stephen Sondheim's latest work.
Surely Passion offers no light evening-entertainment. Dark and bewitched it tells its story of desire and obsession that once got created for the strange film "Passione d'Amore" by Ettore Scala which now was let on in the scenical production of James Lapine. Therefore Passion is a musical that comes from the heart and that goes straight to the heart despite its darkness - granted one acceppts the old ideas of honour and ethics.
In the Italy of the 19th century the young soldier Giorgio is forced to leave his secret lover Clara behind with her husband and child in Milan to follow his transfer to a provincial outpost. There he meets Fosca the ugly, ill cousin of his superior, who is characterized by the doctor as a "walking collection of all possible illnesses". Giorgio's polite kindness towards Fosca turns out to become his own disaster. Fosca (a fabulous interpretation of Maria Friedman as a desperate creature full of loneliness) falls uncontrollably in love with the handsome soldier. From that moment on she tries everything to gain his affection. Moved by the grotesque self-ignorance of the girl Giorgio starts to show a reserved pita, but soon learns to know Fosca's selfish demanding nature. Fosca's love soon turns to become a degrading obsession that threatens Giorgio's health, his career and his love-affair with Clara.
At first sight Sondheim's music does not seem to be easily accessible. Not discernated songs, but alternating themes determine the score. The noise of military drums, a strange dissonance, afterwards a walk time intonated by clarinets. Sondheim does not make it easy for his audience to perceive a melody completely let alone to keep it in mind. Granted you are familiar with the score, the music unfolds a painful beauty and warm elegance like none of his works. For the London production the composer added a musical climax for Giorgio to make clear his dramatical turn-away from the beautiful Clara to the ugly Fosca. This is a clever move as the moving scene marks a last big climax within the rather long ending of the second act. Furthermore it offers Michael Ball the possibility to finally prove his voice volume that was before completely underrated. Unfortunately it is just now that the orchestrator Jonathan Tunick reaches this instrumental power that could have set far more musical climaxes. This makes makes Passoin´s success completely dependent on the patience of the audience.
Besides Maria Friedman's glamorous performance it is hard for everyone else in the ensemble to stand a comparison. Nevertheless Michael Ball surprises with a convincing and sometimes touching interpretation of the driven to despair character of Giorgio. He perfectly matches Sondheim's model with his usual pleasant timbre and strong voice. Especially convincing because of his naturalness is the cooperation with the attractive Helen Hobson within the love scenes between Giorgio and Clara. These scenes show the caring hand of the director Jeremy Sams. Sams pushes his ensemble to amazing performances, for example Hugh Ross as Doctor Tambourri. It is mainly Sams merit that the London production is more homogeneous than the New York original. Although his direction shows no new perspectives he understands to put more life into the characters than James Lapine's production on Broadway. Together with Mark Henderson's light-design it offers a transparent dreamlike impression. It is when G. finally confesses his love to the dying F. and S.´s lyrics hail on the audience like gun-shots "Love without reason, Love without mercy, Love without pride or shame, Love so consuming, It doesn't have room, For kindness, Or caution or blame", than we know: 'Passion' keeps, what the title promises.