A rapturous meditation on the transient vagaries and redemptive power of love, the rare and exotic bloom of Passion graces the stage but once in a blue moon.
A richly complex and darkly psychological piece, Passion throws the music theatre rulebook out the window. On the one hand a Broadway Best Musical Tony Award-winner, on the other, an intricate chamber opera written for a company of only ten. Marching to its own beat, Passion slowly unfurls an intricate love triangle that continually tests and resets our sympathies and allegiances.
Virile Captain Giorgio Bachetti enjoys a blissful love affair of passionate afternoon trysts with gorgeous married lover Clara. Transferred to a provincial military outpost, Giorgio finds himself alternately drawn towards and repulsed by the sickly Fosca. Told at a gentle, unforced pace, the spellbinding story is far from predictable and is never in danger of a trite happy ending. Clara may have the superficial beauty, but Fosca’s intense, blind devotion has a highly believable impact on Giorgio’s emotional state.
Based on 1981 Italian film Passion d’Amore, the musical achieves an even greater juxtaposition of time and place as book writer James Lapine continually overlaps scenes and characters on stage at once. Director Neil Gooding immediately and clearly establishes the simultaneous settings conceit, enhancing the subtext by placing developing action literally under the noses of characters who are actually miles away. Gooding delivers a production of sterling clarity, illuminating the intricate text but never pandering to simplicity. The end result is tenderly affecting, leaving plenty for the audience to ponder.
Stephen Sondheim’s exquisite score reaches operatic heights through the use of elements such as recurring character motifs, quasi-recitative and seamless musical scenes. The music is not there just for melody, but to reflect and heighten the tension and mood. The rare musical to have more players in the pit than on stage, the orchestra of fifteen, helmed by renowned musical director Guy Simpson, is a luxury indeed. Simpson’s deft and agile touch brings a deceptive level of effortlessness to the fiendishly difficult score.
A challenge in presenting Passion, as with many musicals based on films, is the preponderance of scenes. Benjamin Osborne’s choreography sees the Officers set and strike furniture with regimental precision. Although this undertaking becomes a little tedious, the use of glossy period furniture certainly creates a lush look that was absent in the 2013 New York staging, which did away with props to the point that Giorgio and Clara sat on the ground for their bed scenes.
Costumes are similarly lustrous, achieving a strong visual appeal and a solid level of period detail. Curiously, no costume designer is listed, although assistant stage manager Wendy Findlater is credited for “wardrobe.” The officers’ hair may not meet true military standards, but Clara’s wig may be the most beautifully styled hairpiece to be seen on the Melbourne stage this year.
Aided by sheer curtains and plenty of haze, Rob Sowinski and Tom Warneke’s shimmering lighting design creates the cinematic feel of dissolves and crossfades. If faces are occasionally shadowed, the noir undertones allow for this.
The production boasts an exemplary cast of highly talented performers. It has been far too long between drinks for leading man Kane Alexander, who made such a memorable impact in MTC’s 2004 season of Urinetown. Genuinely handsome, Alexander suits the role of the dashing captain perfectly, all the more so given his open, expressive countenance, which clearly reflects Giorgio’s inner sensitivity and self-doubt. In superb voice, Alexander creates an empathetic, intriguing character whose downfall is keenly felt.
An all too rare leading role, too, for beloved singing actress Silvie Paladino, who, by rights, should never have a night off the stage. Looking radiantly beautiful, Paladino is a pristine Clara, whose status as a prized lover is crystal clear. Given some of the loveliest music, Paladino’s singing is reliably wonderful, and the depth of her acting talent brings an added dimension to the role.
Theresa Borg dresses down to create a believably plain Fosca, by turns capturing the defeat and fire of the intensely troubled soul. Exuding the crippling self-doubt that has hindered Fosca’s emotional development, Borg effectively juggles our sympathy, distrust and affection. Soprano Borg reveals a surprisingly strong lower chest voice that suits the dramatic flourishes of the role’s music.
Seasoned Sondheim interpreter John O’May provides a particularly classy presence as compassionate Doctor Tambourri. Dependably strong actor Mark Dickinson gives a deliberately impenetrable performance as rigid leader Colonel Ricci.
Tod Strike, poster boy for the 2014 boutique musical boom, provides some very welcome moments of relief to alleviate the unstinting drama. Troy Sussman also adds touches of humour to his role of suspiciously substandard cook Lieutenant Torasso. Glaston Toft proves there are no small parts as stern compatriot Lieutenant Barri.
Jolyon James misses the opportunity to add a devilish gleam to deceitful charmer Count Ludovic, seen in the illuminating flashback sequence about Fosca’s ill-fated first love. Cameron MacDonald gives solid support as Private Augenti, and brings dignity to the Mistress in the flashback scene, in which all the roles are played by the male ensemble.
Lovers of Sondheim cannot miss the opportunity to catch this lovingly polished gem.
Passion plays at Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne until 8 November 2014.
Photos: Ben Fon