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Arts: Double take

The theatre critic Paul Taylor and the music critic Edward Seckerson compare notes on Stephen Sondheim's musical 'Passion'
The first act of Stephen Sondheim's Passion is sandwiched between an on-stage orgasm and a demented howl of anguish. There's certainly no mistaking this for Rodgers and Hammerstein. Dark, dream-like and Gothic, Passion demands to be surrendered to as the fable of a young man's ambiguous redemption through the force of an undesired, unrelenting love that fixes on him with the single-minded strength of an incubus.

Jeremy Sams's production captures the feel of this superbly. The panels of Paul Farnsworth's beautiful arcade set have an eerie semi-transparency and are blotched with rusting copper. The heroine's presumptuous prediction that her love will live on in the hero haunts the piece and has, by the end, become a posthumous accomplishment. By giving the whole show the texture of pained, spooky retrospect, the subjective, spectral staging offers advance notice that these are events that Giorgio, the young man, will never be able to forget.

A handsome soldier, serving in 19th-century Italy, Giorgio is forced to leave Clara, his married Milanese mistress, when he's sent to a dismal provincial outpost. Here he meets Fosca, the colonel's ugly, ailing recluse of a cousin, who falls abjectly in love with him. He's repelled at first by her grotesquely self-humiliating but also demanding advances: his resistance is gradually worn down, though, as the absoluteness of Fosca's unconditional love comes to make the mistress's more circumscribed affection look self- protective.

You could object that this comparison is unfair to Clara. Fosca has, after all, nothing to lose. Clara stands to lose a child, and, though the show does not acknowledge this, parental love can, in its force and unconditionality, outrank the romantic passion on view here. That main niggle aside, I found the piece both deeply moving and impressive in the way that Sondheim, while breaking new ground, manages to play to characteristically oblique strengths.

Indeed, I would argue that the close to the first act represents one of the peaks of his art, as Fosca, propped up on the pillows of her sick bed, dictates to Giorgio the letter she would like to receive from him, a letter which registers awe at "A love that like a knife / Has cut into a life / I wanted left alone". It's a piercing moment, partly because the emotion she voices wishfully on his behalf is, as yet, much more hers than his and partly because of the ambiguity over whether the knife in question is that of a surgeon or a murderer.

With her hair scraped back in a bun and the complexion of a cadaver, the superb Maria Friedman brings both a creepy demonic intensity to Fosca and a heart-rending ardour. The blandly pretty Michael Ball cracks open to her more affectingly than I had anticipated and leaves you with the equivocal image of a man at once redeemed and broken. PT

Passion begins like it's hellbent on becoming the opera that Sondheim will never write. The rattle of military drums, a shrieking dissonance, a gentle post-coital rhythm in clarinets (echoes of love and war intermingling) and the voices of Giorgio and Clara literally entwined in the first of two gorgeous lyric ideas - I wouldn't call them songs, but songful motifs - rolling out with a freedom that Sondheim has rarely, if ever, aspired to. They are the first and second subjects in this would-be symphony of love and pain and the whole damn thing.

But then, almost before it's begun, it's broken up, dissipated, while James Lapine's book establishes itself. The exchanges of letters between Clara and Giorgio are fleeting (and none too distinguished) recitatives in a sea of words discreetly underscored with Sondheim's (and orchestrator Jonathan Tunick's) customary deftness. The orchestra carries his ideas forward, but already you crave the musical substance of that opening scene. Having started so freely, it's as if Sondheim has reined himself in again.

It isn't until the wonderful Maria Friedman's "operatic" Fosca arrives with her haunting "I Read" that the musical temperature picks up again. Could it simply be that there isn't enough music - or should I be saying "songs" - in Passion? There's an awful lot of book, that's for sure, and now that the show has expanded to embrace two acts, one is more conscious than ever of it. Of course, the way in which Sondheim harnesses his themes, his sometimes devastating use of reprise, goes some way towards contracting that which is over-long and over-wordy. And there's a new emotional climacteric for Giorgio which helps clarify his dramatic change of heart towards Fosca - while giving Michael Ball one big moment in which to let go with that fabulous show-voice of his. But still the key musical elements of Passion seem too diffuse in the larger context. The best of it is the best and most ineffably lyrical of any Sondheim, the least of it vacillates uncomfortably between musical comedy and half-baked opera. And I'm not sure where that leaves us. ES

'Passion' is at the Queen's Theatre, London W1 (0171-494 5040) to 28 Sept