Monday, April 1, 2013

Passion: Where the Romantic Becomes the Baroque

Melissa Errico and Ryan Silverman, in Classic Stage Company's new production of Passion (Photo by Joan Marcus)

No other American musical works in the same way as Passion, with its uncharacteristically subdued score by Stephen Sondheim and its book by James Lapine, who also did the elegant spare staging in the original Broadway version, in 1994. (That production was broadcast on PBS and is available on DVD.) Written in one intense act, Passion – which is currently being given an excellent revival by New York’s Classic Stage Company, under John Doyle’s direction – is a genuine oddity: a short-story musical (it’s single-themed and single-plotted) that operates exactly at cross-purposes to what it appears to be doing, and builds power by not delivering the emotional satisfaction it appears to promise.

The story, which comes from a novel by Tarchetti that Ettore Scola filmed in the early eighties (as Passione d’Amore), is set in mid-nineteenth-century Italy and plays somewhat like a reversal on Middleton and Rowley’s great Jacobean tragedy The Changeling, in which a young woman becomes sexually bound to an ugly servant she loathes when he performs a murder for her. In Passion a handsome young Milanese captain, Giorgio Bachetti (Ryan Silverman), finds himself transferred to the provinces, having to leave behind his beautiful – married – lover, Clara (Melissa Errico). A kindness to Fosca (Judy Kuhn), the unappealing invalid cousin of his colonel (Stephen Bogardus) – he lends her books to console her for an illness that seems half genuine, half hysterical – provokes her to fall crazily in love with him. She dogs his steps, claiming a bond of sensitivity and aesthetic appreciation with him, even after he tells her he loves someone else. And out of a combination of his reluctant compassion, his gentlemanly nobility, and his sense of responsibility to a woman in whom he’s inadvertently awakened such unexpected tender feelings, a bizarre courtship of sorts emerges. When her condition worsens, he goes to her bed and allows her to dictate a letter – an imagined love letter from him to her that says he wishes hecould love her. When she follows him to a bluff and faints in response to his angry objections, he carries her home through a rainstorm and becomes ill as a result. When the post doctor (Tom Nelis) sends him back to Milan on sick leave, she steals aboard the train and he has to take her back to her cousin’s. Eventually the uncompromising intensity of Fosca’s devotion to Giorgio poisons his affair with Clara, whose refusal to risk losing everything he has by leaving her husband suddenly seems to indicate, in comparison, that theirs is a paltry, cowardly kind of love. Bachetti and Fosca become lovers. But, as the doctor warned him earlier, the physical exertion of sexual intimacy is beyond her strength. She dies, leaving Giorgio altered forever, with a radically different view of what love is.

This plot summary makes Passion sound like a fable of romantic transcendence and transformation, a piece of fairy-tale romanticism – Beauty and the Beast in drag, though with the melancholy ending Hans Christian Andersen might have given it. But Stephen Sondheim isn’t a romantic by temperament or style; he’s a neoclassicist, more turned on by the somber splendor of strictures than by the prospect of breaking loose from them. Give Sondheim an opportunity for uplift and he becomes banal, New Age-y, fake; he comes up with something like “Move On” from Sunday in the Park with George or “Children Will Listen” from Into the Woods. Or the finale of Passion, where Fosca, in a letter to Giorgio that he reads after her death, discovers, “[T]hough I want to live / I now can leave / With what I never knew / I’m someone to be loved /And that I learned from you.” The music critic Francis Davis, in his review of the original-cast CD of Passion in The Atlantic Monthly, observed that “the song with which Giorgio expresses his love for Fosca isn’t ablaze with the rest of the score’s sixteenth-note rhythms and sustained chords. It’s inorganic. So is “Loving You,” the show’s big takeout ballad [which I’ve just quoted] . . . added to the score at the last minute, in order to make Fosca more sympathetic.” Passion is very brilliant, I think, but as a tribute to the transformative power of romantic obsession it’s certainly not convincing. The music – at least, to my untutored ears – fiercely denies us anything like the grandeur and sweep the narrative seems to demand, and it fails to suggest the transition in Giorgio’s feelings that the plot hinges on. Watching the musical, or even listening to the CD, you feel you must have missed something – that he and Sondheim omitted the moment of truth for their hero. And since Passion is an extraordinarily accomplished piece of work, I’d guess Sondheim left out the transition because he couldn’t get himself to believe in it. The finale, “Loving You,” is merely a substitute – a plastic limb he provides for the musical to hobble away on at the end.

Ryan Silverman and Judy Kuhn (Photo by Joan Marcus)
Sondheim and Lapine have structured the play as a series of echoes and detours – removes. In the opening, Giorgio and Clara, in bed, sing about the unprecedented self-knowledge their romantic fervor has brought them: “I didn’t know what love was.” “I’ve never known what love was.” We see at once that these two are intellectualizing their feelings – that, in spite of their perpetual desire for each other, what they’ve got is passion in the head. When Giorgio goes off to the stifling provinces, he carries on a musical correspondence with his mistress that runs alongside the events of his acquaintance with Fosca. The effect is doubly distancing: Giorgio articulates his encounters with Fosca in the form of reflections, which are then bounced off Clara’s reading about and reacting to them. The letter duets divert what we’ve just witnessed; they pull it out of direct experience, reimagining it as text to be mulled over by the two lovers, who are also divided, wrenched away from each other. And when Fosca, driven to despair by Giorgio’s keeping a safe distance from her, begins to write letters to him; when, at her insistence, he writes her from a leave in Milan to confess his love for another woman; and especially when he honors her request to pen the letter she wishes he would write her of his own volition – then the emotional line of the play becomes tormented, twisted into a pretzel. Sondheim’s technique and his and Lapine’s convoluted narrative method (which is suggested by Tarchetti’s novel) lead us into the world of the baroque.

The hero of Pedro Almodóvar’s film Law of Desire writes passionate love letters to himself that he wishes his absent lover would send him. In the movie’s terms, this invention by the protagonist (who is a famous gay erotic film and stage director) is a cop-out, an act of intellectualized rather than genuine desire, and at the end of the picture, having finally realized the difference, he hurls his typewriter out the window. But in Passion, the letters continue even after Fosca is dead. These expressions of passion, as beautiful as they are, are ghosts trailing across the stage. And that’s the visual form the Broadway production took, too. Clara, clad in pink beneath a parasol or in ice blue and white (Jane Greenwood designed the sumptuous costumes), strolls through Giorgio’s consciousness, interrupting his conversation with Fosca. Later the image of the sickly, white-faced Fosca, staggering brokenly down the stairs, a twisted figure clutching a letter, hovers over the love duets between Giorgio and Clara. Adrianne Lobel’s original set was heavy on scrim, which threw a haze over everything, and the backdrop was like a Turner canvas, with the contours of a ruined castle dimly visible.

Over and over, the sexual union of the opening returns to us shrouded in illness and impending death. When Giorgio finally makes love to Fosca, their sex kills her. Passion in this play is all bound up with the tomb; it's tentacled, like the sexual obsession Beatrice Johanna and De Flores share in The Changeling. Romantic longing that embraces the grave and creeps out from beyond it, back to its object on earth, is a mainstay of a certain kind of romanticism, of course (the gothic), but in Passion the vision of sex entwined with death is seen in tandem with repression and restraint, not as a force that crashes through barriers.

Ryan Silverman, Melissa Errico and Judy Kuhn
This play seems intended as an hommage to the potency of romantic obsession, but aesthetically everything in it is held in check, and in the end the characters seem to shut down. Clara drifts back to her husband, never having truly thrown off the bourgeois order of her life; her sexual abandon turns out to be no abandon at all. Fosca gets her single night of passion before succumbing to the shadow of the grave that has lingered over her since long before we met her. And Giorgio, sitting alone at a desk in the hospital where he is still recovering, reading letters from the doctor and the dead Fosca, seems finally beyond the reach of any living force. Moreover, what see in these final moments doesn’t feel like the wages of great passion, but of great repression. The musical undercuts the freely expressed desire of Giorgio and Clara – who, in the original production, were naked in the opening scene -- by suggesting that their love lacks the bravery of true conviction and then presents, as an alternative, a fully committed love that wraps itself up (Lapine staged the union of Fosca and Giorgio fully clothed). I’m not implying that Sondheim and Lapine are being cautionary or puritanical here, but the movement of the play certainly isn’t in the classic romantic direction: toward openness, relaxation of bounds. In some way, it confirms the muffling of sexual expression, calling into question both Giorgio’s clamoring for love at risk, unconditional love, love that isn’t merely “negotiation,” and the rather weak (and very nineties) declaration of self-love at the end: “I’m someone to be loved / And that I learned from you.” (Here’s Francis Davis’s reading: “Regardless of Sondheim and Lapine’s original intentions, the dichotomy represented here is not between soul love and body love but between sickness and health, the unaccountable lure of death and the pang of happiness. On Broadway the pink of Clara’s nude flesh in the opening scene contrasted as drastically with Fosca’s coffin pallor as the two women’s songs contrast in major and minor keys.”)

I loved John Doyle’s 2005 revival of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd with Michael Cerveris and Patti LuPone and the production of Frank Loesser’s Where’s Charley? he staged for Encores! in 2011, but Passion is the only other one of his shows I’ve responded to, despite the critical praise for his version of Company (with Raúl Esparza) and an irritatingly affected, substance-less collection of Rodgers & Hart tunes, Ten Cents a Dance, that he mounted at Williamstown two seasons ago. At CSC the musical has been pared down considerably: the set consists only of chairs that the small (five-man) chorus of officers moves around the stage. But the intimate space (where the audience is seated in three-quarters) is elegantly appointed in black and gold, with two lamp-lit gold-framed mirrors at the back, and Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes please the eye, especially Melissa Errico’s gowns. The economy of the staging seems to suit the material, as in the scene where Giorgio writes the letter for Fosca: he kneels down right, at the edge of the stage, directly across from her “bed” (a pair of chairs) up left, so they are as far away from each other as they can be in this space yet they’re linked on the diagonal. The acting and especially the singing are very fine; Rob Berman, who usually conducts the Encores! shows, has taken charge of the musical direction, and the nine-person band does superb work with the Sondheim score. (At the matinee I attended, Greg Jarrett substituted for Berman as pianist/conductor.) Judy Kuhn, her hair abruptly razor-cut and parted in the middle so that she looks like a rather forbidding governess, her eyes heavy-lidded, with deep red furrows beneath, is a marvelous dramatic singer and her line readings are often enormously clever. She doesn’t have the ability of the original Fosca, Donna Murphy, to suggest a level of irony so dazzling that it carries its own dark glamour, and she doesn’t approach the role with the barely banked savagery that Murphy brought to songs like the character’s first, “I Read,” but no one can be like Murphy, and Kuhn wisely doesn’t try. However, she gives a powerful performance – descending on Giorgio in their first encounter like a witch when she bristles at what she hears as insensitivity, even cruelty, in his talk of love – and she doesn’t make Patti LuPone’s mistake in the concert version of trying to make Fosca a diva role. (Generally I think LuPone is a knockout, but she was badly miscast here.)

Melissa Errico in Passion (Photo by Joan Marcus)
Errico – whom I’ve admired since I saw her in the title role of the Encores! One Touch of Venus seventeen years ago – has a long “character” face and brown tendrils that curl charmingly down her back. She doesn’t have the lush beauty of Marin Mazzie in the original or Audra McDonald in the concert performance, but she gives Clara a self-contained – really a self-satisfied – sensuality; when she signs off at the end of her letters to Giorgio, I thought I could hear in her voice how pleased Clara is with herself since her life accords her everything she could possibly wish, a domestic life with her child and a carefully restricted extramarital one. Ryan Silverman, like Jere Shea on Broadway, is conventionally good-looking. The test of this role is that it demands that a performer with a handsome face and a sweet voice get beyond the usual limitations of a juvenile, and Silverman (again like Shea) succeeds in that task – especially in the “Is This What You Call Love?” number on the bluff, when he calls Fosca out for her relentless, selfish pursuit of him and ends by proclaiming, “I’ve begun to fear for my soul.” The only Giorgio I’ve seen who did more with the role was Michael Cerveris under Price’s direction, but Cerveris’s looks aren’t conventional and he’s perhaps the most expressive actor-singer currently working in the musical theatre. His best moment as Bachetti came at the end of the same song, when Fosca fainted on the bluff and the rain began to pelt down: he tried to walk away from her and then realized, damnably, that he couldn’t abandon her, so he edged back, removed his jacket to cover her, and lifted her in his arms. Cerveris played the scene with almost tragic resignation, like a man who knows he’s just walked of his own accord into a jail cell and hears the bars clang shut behind him.

Doyle makes a virtue of necessity by double-casting four of the five officers (Jeffrey Denman, Jason Michael Evans, Ken Krugman and Will Reynolds) as the figures in the flashback: Colonel Ricci’s story, told to Bachetti in confidence, of the phony, bigamous count who courted Fosca in her youth and swindled her parents out of their savings before abandoning her. The fact that two of these men play women lends the episode the quality of masquerade that, along with the echo imported by the sound designer, Dan Moses Schreier, and Jane Cox’s lighting, recapture the ghostliness that Lapine’s production achieved through different means. The male ensemble (Orville Mendoza is the fifth member) sings exquisitely, especially when they get to harmonize at the end of the flashback. I liked both Bogardus and Nelis, too, though the role of Dr. Tambouri has always been a puzzlement to me. It’s he who asks Giorgio to visit Fosca in her room when he believes (erroneously, as it turns out) that she’s close to death, and the next day he commends the young captain’s courage in doing so. But he insists that he’s not a procurer, that he merely wanted to give the unhappy woman some meager portion of pleasure, and when Bachetti ferries her back to the post and then cuts his sick leave short, Tambouri bemoans the state to which she has brought him. When Ricci discovers Fosca’s feelings for Giorgio – and the letter he wrote at her behest – and challenges him to a duel, Giorgio demands that the doctor gain him admission to her chamber again that night, but Tambouri refuses, protesting, “No, I will not participate in this madness!” I’d be curious to know what Nelis, or either of the other actors I’ve seen try this role (Tom Aldredge and Richard Easton), think this character is up to – or, for that matter, how Sondheim and Lapine might explicate his role in the narrative.

All three versions of Passion mount considerable power over the course of its uninterrupted hundred minutes. And partly this is the consequence of Sondheim’s putting himself in the musical in a way that he usually doesn’t do. The arctic chill Sondheim’s detractors feel in his work blows off a kind of chic non-engagement that can be unpleasant. It isn’t just his brittle cleverness – you wouldn’t complain of that quality in Noël Coward or Lorenz Hart. But you can always feel the scars in their songs – evidence that they’ve earned the right to be caustic. When a Sondheim character quips, “It’s the neighbors you annoy together / Children you destroy together / That make perfect relationships” or lists the little deaths she experiences every day, the emotions seem inauthentic. In Passion Sondheim focuses on the notion of beauty and erotic obsession as tools of power, and he makes no excuses for the behavior of any of the characters. And since he’s showing us a world we sense he feels he’s a part of, there’s an honesty about the musical that’s bracing and finally quite affecting. The only other Sondheim show that has felt to me to be so close to his bone is 1984’s Sunday in the Park with George, and that was a different case: it was his defense against the critics who’ve complained of his cold brilliance, his emphasis on technique rather than emotion. For all the virtues of its first act, the aspect of Sunday in the Park that has always made me uncomfortable is that it’s awash in excuses. “Don’t blame me; I’m an artist and art is easy,” it says, through its hero, the unyielding painter Seurat. “Don’t blame me; I’m a very emotional guy – you just don’t understand how to read me. I live in my paintings.” “Don’t blame me; we just have different priorities. You want to go to the Folies Bergère, but I need to finish this hat because my muse comes first.” “Don’t blame me; one day people will look at this painting and see you all over it, and recognize how much I love you.” In Passion Sondheim brings himself into his work in an entirely non-egotistical way – by taking a story of romantic extremism and twisting it into the baroque form that best expresses his own vision of the world (and, by extension, his vision of art). You get the heat of his commitment to that vision, and it sparks the play.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and The Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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