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THEATER REVIEW

Passion

An Italian Tale of Love And Obsession

By Sandra M. Chung
ARTS EDITOR

Passion

Boston Center for the Arts

April 26-May 18, 2002

Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

Directed by Paul Daigneault

Music conducted by Paul S. Katz

Lighting Design by C. Scott Ananian G

With Julie Jirousek, David Foley, Leigh Barrett, Sean Roper, J. T. Turner, Brian Robinson

Iginia Ugo Tarchetti’s obscure novel Fosca is a different sort of love story, borrowing from both real historical context and the simple fairy tale Beauty and the Beast. The 1981 Italian movie Passione D’Amore, a nominee at the Cannes Film Festival, captures Fosca on film. Stephen Sondheim’s Passion is a riveting musical interpretation of Tarchetti’s story that, in 1994, won a Tony Award for Best Musical. The SpeakEasy theater company’s production of Passion makes the most of a show that could, in less capable hands, turn into a bad soap opera.

Passion is set in the tiny Italian town of Parma in the year 1863, just after the unification of the country and the formation of a national army. The social context is strict patriarchy. Wife or daughter: these are the only choices for a woman in 1860’s Italy. As with true love, there is no in-between.

Fosca (Leigh Barrett), a homely, tortured woman, lives in the Parma military outpost under the auspice of her compassionate cousin, Colonel Ricci (Sean Roper). The cruel hand of fate has left her without husband or father. Frail and prone to sickness, she shuts herself in her room and whiles away the delay between birth and death by reading books.

Giorgio (David Foley), a handsome major, longs to be in Milan with his love Clara, the young, beautiful wife of another man. But he must languish in the remoteness of the Parma outpost (“This is Hell”), where he wins loyalty and respect from his soldiers while pouring his soul into the love letters he exchanges with Clara (“Farewell Letter;” “Sunrise Letter”). Other than his involvement with a married woman, Giorgio’s only ill is his goodness toward a woman whom he pities. With his simple gestures of kindness, he unwittingly leads Fosca to fall profoundly, irreversibly in love with him. Because he is good, he cannot refuse to help a woman in need, even after her attentions begin to erode his mental stability.

The story twists dramatically when Giorgio asks Clara to run away and live her life with him outside the confines of society. Giorgio takes a nosedive into darkness, torn between the lovely woman he adores but cannot have, and the strangely compelling wretch who stalks and worships him. His choices determine an ending that attests to the strangeness and power of romantic love.

Passion conveys complex meanings with simple elements. The set design makes full use of minimal props: little more than beds, tables, chairs, and benches suffice to create all the scenery of the show. Sondheim’s score employs many effective reprises. “God, you are so beautiful,” Giorgio sings to Clara, and several scenes later Fosca sings the same words to Giorgio. “Happiness” is both the first love song and the last love song, highlighting the comparison between the two different women. The soldier’s chorus voices the thoughts of different characters when they themselves are not disposed to speaking.

A good or bad Fosca can make or break the entire show. Barrett definitely makes the show with the strength and intensity of her performance. Fosca’s selfishness is appalling, her sarcasm biting; yet Barrett sings “Loving you is a not a choice/ It’s who I am” with such a fierce, lonely mezzo soprano that it is impossible to hate Fosca completely. Jirousek’s bright soprano conveys Clara’s character with the correct amount of cool prettiness. Finally, Foley pulls off Giorgio’s square-jawed, upright perfection as well as Barrett portrays Fosca’s flaws. His Giorgio’s gradual descent from lovelorn innocence into self-torture is a perfect framework for the body of the story.

Tight musical and dramatic performances by the supporting cast round out the story and provide comic relief to complement the serious events. The actors exhibit varying but mostly excellent mastery of the highly intelligent choreography, which adds a crisp, military flavor to many pieces. The clarity, elegance and power of the cast members’ performances rescues the script from its dangerous potential for campiness and makes Passion a timeless, memorable love story.