Romantic love may be passionate or not, but in opera, theatre, and novels, we generally prefer passion to mere companionability, although the latter is often what works best in real life couplings, especially over time. But what about a romantic passion that is so overwhelming it is like an illness and seems to destroy all in its path? Think of “Othello,” or “Tosca,” or “Aida.” Great passion can be thrilling but often ends badly, as though we are required to pay a terrible price for it.
In Sondheim’s masterful chamber opera (adapted from a film by Ettore Scola), the approach is quite different. A handsome, good-hearted, and sophisticated young soldier, on a provincial assignment, sticks out like a gilded thumb and attracts the love of the sickly (perhaps dying), unattractive, sensitive Fosca. He treats her as kindly as he is able, but is quick to tell her that he is already in love and unavailable. He behaves like a gentleman in every way. His kindness is catnip to Fosca.
She throws herself at him like a tornado, indifferent to the turmoil she creates. She weeps, she threatens, she whines, she manipulates, and when he decides to take a leave of absence to visit his lover and allow some time for her passion to cool, she follows him. He is strikingly handsome, sensitive, kind, and well-meaning. She is so monstrous as to overwhelm our natural feelings of pity.
Indeed, at the opening night performance, many audience members (myself included) could not refrain from vocal ejaculations at her horrifying behavior. I actually heard (or myself pronounced) words such as: “Jesus,” “Oh my God,” “come on,” for “Chrissakes,” and even, “that’s just sick.” Occasionally, Fosca’s neediness seemed so over-the-top it provoked laughter. Some might describe this as heckling, but I believe it represents a release of unbearable tension brought on by the incredible vulnerability of Heather Orth’s performance in the role. Few actresses ever succeed so wonderfully at calling out a visceral response from an audience.
Initially sympathetic, Orth’s brilliant performance as “Fosca” quickly risks losing the audience’s sympathy by being so thoroughly exposed that it is difficult to feel compassion as the rawness of her need is embarrassing. Where is her dignity? Where is our dignity that we could watch this debacle? What did Giorgio do to deserve to be tortured at her hands? What did she do to be tortured merely by his stimulating presence?
This is “Passion” exposed with no civilizing ceremony, no veneer of romance, no simple joy: just raw, all-consuming, unjustified need. Its performance demands a level of personal vulnerability from the actors that is rarely demanded, even by Shakespeare, and this is successfully realized by John Melis (Giorgio) and Heather Orth (Fosca). They are superb.
Melis (a singing actor with impressive operatic credentials) is as handsome and graceful as the role demands, and yet as he tries to puzzle through his feelings he expresses his inner life with an adolescent like awkwardness that is completely authentic. His shoulders begin to stoop, his brow creases, his head juts forward, every muscle in his body reveals the turmoil seething beneath the polished surface. When he ultimately is broken open by the intensity of Fosca’s unremitting gaze, his ardent flowering is unspeakably endearing.
Melis and Orth are supported by an impressive supporting cast, especially the group of soldiers whose ensemble work is extremely polished. They are like a single organism, not too bright, not too dim, neither too caring nor completely indifferent. They are more or less easy to be with, but lacking soul. As a group, they cannot imagine any explanation for Giorgio’s behavior other than to think he plans to use Fosca (whose cousin is captain of the regiment) for his advantage.
As Giorgio’s attractive mistress, Clara, Julia Lustenader is beautiful and level-headed. Clara is perfect in every way, except that she lacks Fosca’s capacity to abandon herself for love, and is inconveniently attached to a husband and child. As Georgio comes to appreciate Fosca’s depth, Clara’s more straightforward lust simply cannot compete. Lustenader does a fine job of capturing Clara’s tepid temperament.
The production values, in the hands of scenic designer Bernadette Flynn, costume designer Kathleen Qui, and lighting designer Tina Johnson are all excellent and well suited to the chamber musical setting of this production.
Still, this is opera, outsized, outrageous and unbelievable were it not for the soaring music that can carry the emotion into the stratosphere. Musical director, conductor, and pianist Brian Allan Hobbs does justice to Sondheim’s genius with the help of musicians Sheldon Brown and Ami Nashimoto, playing a variety of instruments.
While Critically recognized as a masterpiece, “Passion” did not fare well on Broadway. In fact, it had the shortest run on Broadway of any show ever to win a Tony Award for Best Musical. Its afterlife has been largely in the hands of opera companies, where it will surely continue to gain in stature in the coming years.
We should be grateful to Custom Made and director Stuart Bousel for this extraordinary revival in a small theatre. The production is a beautifully polished miniature. Indeed, Custom Made has been emerging over the past couple of seasons as an expert in presenting great musicals in a chamber setting, which we hope is a tradition-in-the-making.
Bay audiences should not be afraid of “Passion.” Do go and give yourself up to a memorable emotional journey.
“Passion” continues at The Custom Made Theatre Company through July 20, 2019. For further information, click here.
Rating: ***** (For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)
“Passion” by Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and James Lapine (book). Produced by Custom Made Theatre Company. Director: Stuart Bousel. Music Director: Brian Hobbs. Scenic Designer: Bernadette Flynn. Custome Designer: Kathleen Qui. Lighting Designer: Tina Johnson. Sound Designer: Anton Hedman. Properties Designer: Tom O’Brien. Intimacy Choreographer: Natalie Green.
Mistress: Amy Alvina. Torasso: Roy Eikleberry. Doctor Tambouri: Jake Gleason. Ludovic/Augenti: Zaya Kolia. Lombardi/Father: Carl Lucania. Clara: Juliana Lustenader. Giorgio: John Melis. Fosca: Heather Orth. Mother: Kelly Rubinsohn. Rizzoli: Max Seijas. Colonel Ricci: Domonic Tracy, Barri: Micah Watterson.