by Scott Proudfitt
By contrasting bright light and dark shadows, Italian Baroque artist Caravaggio’s paintings effectively conveyed the drama of biblical scenes such as “The Beheading of St. John the Baptist” and “The Raising of Lazarus.” Caravaggio’s technique, chiaroscuro (literally “clear-dark”), heightened the emotion of these iconic tableaux by capturing, for instance, how the rays of a single candle can penetrate the blackest corners or how even the brightest sunlight can be swallowed by shadow.
In the musical Passion, composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim and book writer James Lapine masterfully employ a kind of theatrical chiaroscuro. Their love story achieves its emotional force in contrasts: the sound of music against the drums of war, a soldier’s robust health set against an invalid’s debilitating illness, the shining ideal of true love against the murky depths of the most selfish desires. Like Caravaggio’s paintings, the beauty of Passion’s chiaroscuro lies not in keeping these opposites separate but rather in allowing them to penetrate and complicate one another.
Based on Iginio Ugo Tarchetti’s 1869 novel Fosca and its 1981 film adaptation, Passione d’Amore, Passion tells the story of a nineteenth-century Italian soldier, Giorgio, torn between love for his beautiful mistress Clara and pity for Fosca, the unattractive sister of his commanding officer. In Italian, Clara means “bright,” Fosca “dark.” With its many Gothic elements—screams in the night, a ruined castle, prophetic nightmares—Passion’s plot is in many ways a classic vampire story, with genders reversed. Like a female Dracula, the pale, ravenous Fosca pursues the innocent Georgio. Indeed, there is even the suggestion that Fosca’s mysterious sickness infects and sucks the life out of the once-strapping Georgio.
But Passion, which won four Tonys in its original 1994 Broadway production, is not a melodrama in which a man must choose rightly between angel or devil, nor is it a mere Beauty-and-the-Beast allegory, in which to find happiness Georgio need only recognize the loveliness beneath Fosca’s wretched exterior. Passion’s lights and shadows are not so simple. In many ways, the manipulative Fosca is as ugly inside as she is out. By contrast, the seemingly immaculate Clara turns out to be less pure and much less romantic than she first appears. These women are neither completely true to their names nor altogether false. Rather, as shadows bleed into sunlight and vice versa, Fosca and Clara become more like one another as the story progresses. Ultimately, Fosca is the right choice for Georgio not because of what she embodies (either darkness or light), but because of the question she makes him confront: What is true love? In order for Georgio to answer this, he must assume the more passive role of the beloved. In this way, Passion challenges another black-and-white division, the traditional courtship roles of men and women.
In Sondheim’s 1979 musical Sweeney Todd, the central romance starts with the song “Ah, Miss!” as a young man tries to catch his beloved’s attention while she gazes out her window. In Passion, it is the girl in the window, Fosca, who sees the man below and desires what she sees. “I watched you from my window,” she confesses to Georgio, “I saw that you were different.” Because of her appearance, Fosca admits she does not “behave as other women do.” She plays the voyeur and, despite her frailty, the aggressor. She coaxes, even blackmails, Georgio into her bed. She also echoes Georgio’s adoration of Clara when she tells him, “You are so beautiful.” Giorgio is embarrassed by this attention, but he also seems frustrated with the strictures of his masculine military environment. “Imagine that, a soldier who cries,” he describes himself early on in a letter to Clara. Troubled yet fascinated by the power his beauty has over Fosca, Georgio finds conventional masculine and feminine roles blur as he questions his assumptions about love. Following Tarchetti’s novel, most of Passion is epistolary, told through letters. This makes for an evening of confession and soul baring, as the characters sing their thoughts directly to the audience in musical soliloquies. Of course, these lovers do not merely sing their own compositions. Clara sings the words Georgio has written her. Georgio sings the letters of Clara and Fosca. Even the soldiers’ chorus repeats Georgio’s words and echoes Fosca and Clara’s responses. In this way, the characters literally give voice to one another’s thoughts. In doing so, not only feelings but identities are shared. Characters melt into one another in the same way that Fosca and Clara, darkness and light, are combined throughout. One voice flows into the next, woven into a single meditation on love. Sondheim has described Passion as “one long love song, one long rhapsody.” In this sense, Passion is more opera than musical comedy. There are few jokes, no dancing, no space for applause. There are indeed few distinct songs, just a series of linked melodic motifs. For a musical about love, in all its contrasts and complications, opera is the perfect medium. Though apprenticed under Oscar Hammerstein II, Sondheim’s idiom has always been more classical than musical theatre. Bach is his purported hero. Considering this, it is not surprising that the most common criticism of Sondheim’s musicals is that they are too cerebral, something of which the composer is all too aware.
Many have read similarities between Sondheim and the brilliant but emotionally unavailable painter Georges Seurat, the central figure in Sondheim’s 1984 hit musical Sunday in the Park With George. As other characters note of Seurat early in this show, the problem with Georges is that he is “All mind, no heart. No life in his art.” Passion, Sondheim’s last Broadway musical to date, might be Sondheim’s response to similar criticism that has dogged this artist’s career from Company (1970) to Into the Woods (1987). No one can say that Passion is too cerebral. It is all about the human heart. It is also, therefore, perhaps Sondheim’s most personal and emotional work in a long and legendary career.