Given his extraordinary musical acumen, it’s surprising that Stephen Sondheim isn’t a big fan of opera, to put it mildly. Many moments thrill him, he says, “but few complete scores” (he lists only Carmen, Peter Grimes, Wozzeck, Porgy and Bess, and “most of Puccini”). One reason: “Most opera composers seem to have little sense of theater.” Another: “I’m not as enthralled by the human voice as I would like to be. For me it’s the song, not the singer. I don’t really care who sings ‘Vissi d’Arte,’ I care about what she’s singing.”
In Passion, Sondheim’s semi-maybe-a-bit-like-opera, she is Fosca. Deathly ill, the unattractive cousin of an Italian colonel lives only through books. When dashing young Giorgio, a captain in the army, lends her a few, Fosca doesn’t just fall in love, she lays siege on his soul. Although making love would kill her, she blazes with such fervor that her fierce, unconditional devotion appears grotesque.
Especially compared to Giorgio’s “passion” for Clara. The musical opens with ocular and aural proof — a “climax,” so to speak. “I thought I knew what love was,” he exclaims. Theirs can’t be “just another love story.” No one will ever know such “endless happiness,” says Clara. The moment feels genuine, a roofless high.
Comedies usually end here. But as in Sondheim’s Into the Woods, Passion begins at this point.
Clara confesses that “sadness” in his eyes drew her to Giorgio. Both exclaim “how quickly pity leads to love.” The observation blurs amid the bliss. Sixteen scenes later, it may offer a partial explanation for Giorgio’s radical shift of affections — did pity draw him to Fosca? — and his discovery that “love within reason is not love at all.”
We know little about Clara, Giorgio, and Fosca. Where do they dine in 1863 Milan? How did they vote in the last election — or would they? Except for his uniform and their starkly contrasted costumes — Clara’s sunrises versus Fosca’s tomblike gloom — they are, almost exclusively, their emotions.
This pared-down approach recalls the plays of Federico Garcia-Lorca (Yerma, Bodas de Sangre). His people are real enough, but he provides so few details, they easily glide into the stuff of ballads. In Lorca and Sondheim’s elemental characters, passion isn’t just a feeling; it’s a force of nature.
Except for that initial note of pity, Sondheim offers no explanations. This may explain why Passion evokes such mixed responses. People expecting yummy, storybook love and cultural stereotypes for beauty resist Fosca’s Gothic “all-in” tactics. How can “our” Giorgio abandon blonde, devoted Clara for this clutchy monster?
And has Giorgio discovered “things I feared,/ Like the world itself,/ I now love dearly.” That sounds like a religious experience!
Sondheim is anti-opera (he calls recitative “a tedious and arid solution to a problem easily solved by dialogue”). And his big, opera-like, 100-minute piece works best in an intimate setting.
If San Diego theater has a persistent theme in recent years, it’s “stretching.” Diversionary, New Village Arts, OnStage, and other companies have produced musicals in small spaces. By mounting Sondheim’s Gypsy and now Passion, Ion Theatre has gone outside the proverbial box — i.e., its 40-seat box theater: the loss, splashy visuals, vast production numbers; the gain, under Kim Strassburger’s sensitive direction, an intimacy that’s heartbeat-close.
Along with an accomplished singing voice, Jason Heil gives Giorgio a much-needed naiveté and the perplexity of a cracking soul. With her first notes in “Happiness” (“I’m so happy/ I’m afraid to die/ Here in your arms”), Katie Whalley’s clear soprano creates the standard from which Clara will fall.
Ruff Yeager heads the fine supporting cast as Colonel Ricci. Yeager’s somber gravitas provides a bass line for the musical. It also suggests a link to his cousin, Fosca, who sets gravitas on fire.
Thanks to Karin Filijan’s moody lighting, Jeanne Reith’s funereal dress, and the melancholy in her blank eyes, when Fosca first enters, Sandy Campbell all but sucks the air out of the room. She’s icy, death warmed over: how dare such a drab, forlorn, sexless creature intrude onto our shimmering romance?
Campbell, who recently played Lady Macbeth at Intrepid Shakespeare, may lead the league in stretching her repertoire. Or maybe her manic, “exposed nerve endings” Fosca’s been there all along. A key to this compelling performance: Fosca never once tries to win our love, just Giorgio’s.
Directed by Kim Strassburger; cast: Sandy Campbell, Jason Heil, Katie Whalley, Ruff Yeager, Bryan Banville, Kevin Burroughs, Andy Collins, Patrick Gates, Ralph Johnson, Brandon Sherman, Christina Wenning; scenic design, Claudio Raygoza; costumes, Jeanne Reith; lighting, Karin Filijan; sound, Melanie Chen; music direction and accompaniment, Mark Danisovsky
Playing through May 10: Thursday through Saturday at 8pm; matinee Saturday at 2pm. 619-600-5020.