Strange bedfellows:Judy Kuhn and Michael Cerveris in Pasion(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Strange bedfellows:
Judy Kuhn and Michael Cerveris in Pasion
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Sondheim aficionados will find much to love in the fifth and most cutting-edge production thus far of the Kennedy Center's summer-long Sondheim Celebration, 1994's Passion. Others may be excused for thinking it an interesting presentation that offers a flawed view of love.

With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by James Lapine, Passion is a dark tale of obsession based on the Italian novel Fosca by Amino Tarchetti and the film Passion D'amore by Ettore Scola. Directed by Sondheim Celebration artistic director Eric Schaeffer, the current production has a lush-sounding, chamber-size orchestra to play the evocative score, and the leads and supporting cast successfully grapple with the challenging, operetta-style songs. There are weaknesses, however, including the overwrought libretto and shallow acting by the leading man.

We're in Italy, in 1863. Giorgio, a dashing army captain, is enjoying a lusty affair with the married Clara in Milan, until he is ordered to a dusty outpost. There, even as he and Clara exchange passionate love letters, he becomes entangled with Fosca, the invalid cousin of his commanding officer. Fosca, suffering from an undefined illness with both mental and physical manifestations, becomes obsessed with Giorgio, who in turn is both fascinated and repelled by her pure love/unhealthy obsession for him and begins to unravel from the strain of her incessant attentions. Is this an examination of what true love really is, as Sondheim's lyrics would have us believe? Or is it just a look at the inner lives of unstable people, as the show's detractors insist?

The answer might be clearer if Giorgio, played by Michael Cerveris (Tommy, Titanic, etc.), were portrayed with more dynamism. When we meet Giorgio, he is a callow young man enjoying languid afternoons in bed with Clara, sensuously played by Rebecca Luker. Cerveris gives his soldier the speaking voice of a male ingénue, full of trembling longing and unguarded youthfulness. But after he is dispatched to the countryside, he maintains the boudoir tone when speaking to his hearty male comrades. Even as his senses are scrambled by the weight of unwanted and oppressive attention from the sickly Fosca--Judy Kuhn, in a gripping performance--Cerveris' Giorgio sounds more fawnlike than tortured. The actor never really shows us the character's emotional arc. Giorgio's feelings should be the standard by which the value of love is measured; here, since his demeanor does not change until his mind is all but lost, those feelings are difficult to discover and follow.

Cerveris does sing magnificently, however, and he debuts for American audiences a new version of one Passion song heretofore only performed in London. (In keeping with the composer's insistence that the score be considered as a whole rather than broken down into specific pieces, no song titles are printed in the program and no title attached to this re-worked song in Scene 13). Sondheim uses the number to provide additional insight into Giorgio's transformation from loathing Fosca's obsession with him to wallowing in it. Here, Giorgio tells Fosca's doctor that he is responding to her worship because it is pure and without caution or reason; today, of course, that sort of love might be called stalking.

Clara, don't you be downhearted:Rebecca Luker in Passion(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Clara, don't you be downhearted:
Rebecca Luker in Passion
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Judy Kuhn seamlessly moves from realistic-sounding dialogue to song, the transition almost impossible to trace at times and thereby fitting Sondheim's vision of one long and romantic musical interlude. Her Fosca has a weak body but steely determination. She's actually a bit scary, dressed in black with her hair in a severe bun and her face white and gaunt, offset by deep, dark circles around her eyes that make her face a mask. Unfortunately, some of Fosca's obsessive traits border on the ludicrous, and her devious ways occasionally spill over into melodrama that provokes unintended audience laughter. It appears that Schaeffer was not expecting this response; the actors push on through their dialogue without pause.

As Clara, Rebecca Luker has the most beautiful voice, a pure soprano that resonates with joy in her bedroom scenes with Giorgio and then communicates the ache of loneliness as she and her lover are reduced to pen pals. Where Fosca is dark, Clara is light, and Luker is dressed in amber tones complementing her auburn hair. Clara may love Giorgio but not enough to abandon her comfortable life, so her love is deemed less pure than the demented Fosca's. This theory is rather hard to swallow, but the "tone poem" (as the score has been called) and the rich voices make it go down easier than expected. Passion is an opera without arias, music that articulates emotions.

Derek McLane's unit set features giant walls of crumbling shutters through which lighting designer Howell Binkley filters colors that reflect and enhance the shifting emotions of the characters. As the curtain goes up, daylight squeezes in through the slits to let us know that the relationship of the lovers in bed at the center of a barren stage must be illicit. Milan is glowing shades of warm orange while the military post and home of Fosca is darker, drab hues. Panels in the shutters are raised to form a variety of backdrops as basic props rapidly move in and out.

Conductor Patrick Vaccariello leads a 15-piece orchestra through Jonathan Tunick's original orchestrations, the incessant military drum rolls heightening suspense. The orchestral sound lends a surprising degree of texture to a piece that is more soulful than some of Sondheim's other work and, at the same time, more likely to generate divergent reactions.