By Jordan Wright
Weeks ago, I began to think about Natascia Diaz in the role of Fosca after I saw her perform one of the numbers from “Passion” at Signature’s Annual Open House. I wondered how this actress would inhabit a character not known to garner sympathy from female audiences.
Having witnessed her in many different roles and seen how certain roles became her – others that would not allow her to shine as optimally as I know she can – I am thrilled to report that this is the role for both her superb acting as well as her beautifully controlled and emotionally riveting voice. It is a triumph for Diaz in a role she reportedly was not keen on taking.
Stephen Sondheim’s “Passion” is certainly one of his finest efforts with a sing-through libretto more operetta than standard musical.
Its story of a love triangle between Giorgio (Claybourne Elder in a peerless performance), Clara (Steffanie Leigh in a seemingly effortless portrayal) and the invalid Fosca.
Set on a provincial military outpost near Milan, it’s based on the 1869 novel “Fosca” by Ignio Ugo Tarchetti. In 1981, it was adapted into the film “Passione d’Amore” by Ettore Scola before opening on Broadway in 1994 with music and lyrics by Sondheim and book by James Lapine, the show’s original director.
The opening scene between Giorgio and Clara affords us a scene of amorous coupling in Clara’s bed. There is nudity involved, but it is sensuous and tasteful, and yes, passionate, as you would expect, as the rhapsodic lovers declare their undying adoration for each other. The story unfolds to reveal a complex and untenable power play between the three central characters.
Frail Fosca becomes the third wheel and supplicant to the handsome and dashing officer, Giorgio, who insists he is devoted to the beautiful – but married – Clara. However, Fosca is undaunted.
“If you never have expectations, you never have disappointments,” Fosca insists as she calculatingly manipulates him with both threats to his career and callousness towards her frailties. This is where audiences audibly groan at her actions. Think Glenn Close’s character in the movie “Fatal Attraction.”
Giorgio challenges her affections, “Is this what you call love – your relentless pursuit?” On top of this corrosive behavior, he is further humiliated by his fellow officers who claim he is sucking up to Fosca’s cousin, Colonel Ricci, for a promotion.
Imagine this as a modern-day romance. You want to stop the madness but cannot wait to see what unfolds. “Passion” is visceral and uncompromising with compelling performances and flawless voices with music written around their exchange of letters. It’s highly recommended.
The production is skillfully directed by Matthew Gardiner with music direction by Jon Kalbfleisch with a 14-piece orchestra, orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick, scenic design by Lee Savage, 19th-century costume designs by Robert Perdziola, lighting design by Colin K. Bills and sound design by Ryan Hickey.
The play also stars Will Gartshore as Colonel Ricci, Ian McEuen as Lieutenant Torasso, Bobby Smith as Major Rizzolli and Fosca’s father, Lawrence Redmond as Lieutenant Barri, John Leslie Wolfe as Doctor Tambourri, Gregory Maheu as Sergeant Lombardi and Ludovic, Christopher Mueller as Private Augenti, Rayanne Gonzales as Fosca’s mother
and Katie Mariko Murray as Mistress.
“Passion” runs through Sept. 23 in the MAX at Signature Theatre at
Shirlington Village, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington, 22206. For tickets and information, call 703-820-9771 or visit www.sigtheatre.org.
Jordan Wright writes about food, spirits, travel, theatre and culture. Visit her website at www.whiskandquill.com or email her at [email protected].