Passion continues at the Theatre du Chatelet, Paris until 24 March.
Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩
Persuading Natalie Dessay, one of the world’s most celebrated and best-loved operatic sopranos, to play the unattractive and hysterical Fosca in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1994 Tony Award-winning Passion has to go down as a genuine coup de theatre and a feather in the Chatelet’s cap.
In her first-ever English-language role, the tiny French diva is the reason why Parisians are flocking to this rarely-performed musical tragedy in its brief, seven-performance run that sees the Sondheim catalogue returning after a gap year to this stunning theatre by the Seine.
It is a story of love, sex, obsession, illness, beauty, power, manipulation and, yes, passion set in 19th century Italy and inspired by Iginio Tarchetti’s novel Fosca which he based on an affair he had with an epileptic when he was a soldier.
Dessay, relentless in pursuit of the handsome soldier who finally (and fatally for her) returns her love, gives her considerable all in this hypnotically beautiful production that deserves the chance to be seen in London and/or New York.
Big star apart, this Passion surely boasts the world’s best-looking director in legendary movie actress Fanny Ardant, who joined the cast onstage as the near full house in this 1,800-seater gave full-throated first-night approval. She and they fully deserved it: it is not an easy piece to get right.
Many seeing it for the first time might struggle to believe why the soldier Giorgio (the excellent Canadian tenor Ryan Silverman, reprising the role he played Off-Broadway three years ago) would choose to give up a beautiful ladyfriend for a plain, sick stalker.
Perhaps that’s why it was the shortest-running Tony winner ever on Broadway at only 280 performances; even fewer when it came to the West End two years later with Maria Friedman and Michael Ball.
Since then the only two revivals of note came with Elena Roger’s Fosca at the Donmar in 2010 and an Off-Broadway production with Judy Kuhn three years ago.
As those two bijou theatres maxed out at 250 and 199 seats respectively, it was always going to be interesting to see what the four-balcony Chatelet was going to do with such an intimate piece.
Instead of a nine-piece band, here we have a huge bank of violins and the romantic lushness of the Radio France Philharmonic under the assured baton of Sondheim specialist Andy Einhorn, greatly aided by sensational costumes from four-time Oscar winner Milena Canonero and Guillaume Durrieu’s pared-down set.
To their credit, this understated production is perfectly judged although, with the love scenes and Giorgio’s ‘Nightmare’ sequence being played out on the floor, it’s possible not everybody will have been able to see everything.
This is a Chatelet debut for American soprano Erica Spyres and maybe the lift-off for a great career. Playing handsome young Giorgio’s playfully glamorous married bit of fluff Carla, she more than holds her own with the two principals in the acting and singing stakes.
Dessay, of course, is vocally wonderful, but not always clear with the spoken word, particularly early on.
Yet by the end we truly believe that love is not a choice for her, it is who she is and she would gladly die for him. The scene where she gets Giorgio to write a fantasy letter from him to her – ‘I Wish I Could Forget You’ – is especially moving.
Giorgio, for his part, finally realises that “love within reason is not a love at all” and that his carefully arranged, convenient affair with Clara is ‘Just Another Love Story’.
Another American, Shea Owens, is the pick of a strong supporting cast with his perfectly-pitched baritone as Fosca’s cousin Colonel Ricci who comes off second-best in a duel with Giorgio.
It’s amazing to think that very few French theatregoers had even heard of the greatest living composer until Chatelet’s director-general Jean-Luc Choplin, a real Sondheim groupie, brought them A Little Night Music six years ago, followed by Sweeney Todd in 2011, Sunday in the Park With George (2013) and Into the Woods (2014).
More power to his elbow – and roll on the Chatelet’s next dip into the Sondheim songbook. This one is just about as far away from jukebox musicals as you can get without entering the realms of opera but well worth reviving and a true work of art when done as lovingly as this.