Given the background of the Donmar’s history of brilliantly staged Sondheim musicals, the production of Passion to celebrate the composers’ 80th birthday should be something of an event. Working once more with James Lapine, the 1994 musical tells the story of a Risorgimento soldier in a particularly 19th-century love triangle.
Passion is very much a chamber piece, well suited to intimacy of the Donmar. Director Jamie Lloyd handles the space superbly, translating the epistolary structure of Lapine’s book. With Scott Ambler’s choreography, the small cast creates the claustrophobia of a military environment and brings out the gothic overtones of Iginio Ugo Tarchetti’s original source material.
The superb Elena Roger plays the invalid Fosca, portraying insanity while skillfully avoiding the comedic. Frightening and manipulative (in Giorgio’s dreams she appears vampiric), her intensity convinces him that his happy affair with the radiant Clara (Scarlett Strallen) isn’t the real deal.
David Thaxton handles Giorgio’s initial repulsion of Fosca with sensitivity, and portrays his subsequent decision to abandon Clara with a degree of mania inherited from his new lover. Thaxton’s voice is a revelation, deeply commanding yet retaining the romance of Sondheim’s sweet score.
For, despite the morbid overtones of disease, Passion is a romantic musical. The explorations of two different kinds of love interweave with a satisfying symmetry, though while Sondheim avoids sentimentality, he also loses his sense of humour.
It seems perverse to criticise a composer known for innovation when he changes his style, but in abandoning his usual wry touch in favour of something more heartfelt, the fun is missing and that seems a shame. For all its sincerity, and the quality of this production, it is difficult to get passionate about Passion.
Until 27 November 2010
Photo by Johan Persson
Written 21 September 2010 for The London Magazine