We went together to see a production of Passion during our recent trip to London – yes, my husband loves me – and it was seeing it live that made me realize what a masterwork it is. My husband didn’t hate it this time around either, although we did have a lively discussion afterwards. The thing with Passion is, it grows on you over time, over multiple listenings/viewings, and through your own life experiences. That first time I saw it, I don’t think I had the necessary insights to understand it in the same way that I understood it this past November. And if I see it again in five or ten years, I fully expect it to be a different experience yet again.
Stephen Sondheim is an amazing composer and an equally dazzling lyricist (in fact, he got his professional start as a lyricist), and those skills are clearly in display in this, one of his latest shows. The score is romantic and lush, the melodies much more memorable than in many of his shows, and the inclusion of martial drum rolls ties nicely into both the show’s themes and even some of its lyrics (“They Hear Drums”). The show features a chorus of male soldiers who comment on the action (and spread gossip), and some of the music overlaps on itself (two people singing at once, for example, but not in a traditional duet) in a way that is almost dream-like … or perhaps crazy (the craziness of romantic love or the craziness of solitude, loneliness, and disappointment, depending, and sometimes a bit of both).
The story centers around a love triangle of sorts. At the apex of the triangle is the Italian soldier Georgio, who is having a passionate love affair with the married Clara. When he is transferred to a provincial outpost (and one at which he is very miserable), they swear to continue their love affair through letters. At his new post, he meets his commanding officer’s sickly cousin Fosca, who is ill, obsessive, depressed, and manipulative. Do you see where the difficulty of this show starts to come in? Especially when I tell you that by the end, Georgio has fallen in love with Fosca and thinks his love affair with Clara meant nothing.
Here is where I see the brilliance in this show. However much we’d like to believe otherwise with our happily-ever-afters and our formula romances, love is messy. It’s unreasonable, it doesn’t play by predictable rules, and it comes at unexpected times and in unexpected forms. And love is shown in high relief as being messy in this show. Through the course of events, Fosca gradually learns how to love unconditionally instead of being trapped in the grasping, needy obsession that she begins with. Georgio as well learns what it means to love unselfishly and to love above all else. He asks Clara to run away with him, and she refuses; while she insists he holds her heart, she is held back by her motherly love for her child. She asks him to wait until her child is older, but ultimately he decides he no longer wants such a carefully arranged, rational relationship. What he wants instead is the no-hold’s-barred passion, both the beauty and the ugliness, that Fosca offers him. So while this show is something of a tragedy, it’s a happy tragedy because the characters have gotten somewhere and they have learned a deep abiding truth, which perhaps matters more than continuing on indefinitely in their old, miserable ways.
The difficulty is that Fosca is so truly unpleasant and unsympathetic, particularly at the beginning of the show. It subverts our narrative expectations to have Georgio choose her over the beautiful and romantically appropriate Clara. Watching Fosca play her manipulative little games with Georgio fills us with aversion. Personally I believe this makes the ultimate transformation of the characters that much more powerful. And it takes me back to the main point of this essay, which is this: love is messy. And yet even out of a dysfunctional and terrible love can come something beautiful. Relentlessness can show itself as either obsession or an unconditional love that is without price.
The first meeting of Fosca and Georgio:
An example of the manipulation games of Fosca:
A short example of the Soldier’s Chorus:
The end of Georgio and Clara’s relationship:
Georgio revealing he loves Fosca: