MANILA -- When I first heard that Stephen Sondheim’s "Passion" was going to be restaged in Manila, I was apprehensive. I recalled the military march music and revolting characters from the 1996 Repertory Philippines production. But I gave the cast recording another listen and remembered how affecting the music was with its themes of love, betrayal, manipulation, and obsession.
At the center of "Passion" is Captain Giorgio Barchetti (Vien King) who is first seen in the arms of the gorgeous Clara (Jasmine Fitzgerald). He breaks the news that he is to be transferred to a remote military outpost. There he meets a motley band of soldiers, the regiment’s doctor Tambourri (Lorenz Martinez), the camp commander Colonel Ricci (Raul Montesa), and his sicky cousin Fosca (Sheila Valderrama-Martinez).
Barchetti shows a certain kindness to Fosca, and thus begins her affection towards handsome captain. What ensues is Barchetti getting entangled with the two women, each with entirely different definitions and expressions of love.
Valderrama-Martinez’s Fosca absolutely hit the high notes in this production. Whatever magic the Philippine Opera Company, director Robbie Guevara, and makeup artist Myrene Santos cast on the spunky gorgeous actress to transform into the hunched gaunt that is Fosca was utterly remarkable. The change wasn’t only visual but auditory as well, with Valderrama-Martinez showing off a different timbre and quality.
King, meanwhile, put a certain youthful sincere vulnerability to Giorgio such that it is believable that he would fall for Fosca even as he is in the arms of Clara. Admittedly, King had some slips with pronunciation and accents that were quickly forgotten once he sang one of Giorgio’s many challenging solos.
Jasmine Fitzgerald was radiant as the Milanese beauty Clara, imbuing the character with both naivete and sophistication.
It was strange to see Martinez in a non-singing, super serious role with Dr. Tambourri but he pulled this off with great pathos for Fosca’s plight. Montesa turned Colonel Ricci into an easygoing leader that values comradeship with his men, while the ever-scene-stealing Rayos inserted comedic touches here and there to liven up an otherwise serious musical.
The ensemble that played the soldiers and maids were used to great effect as the “village gossips” of the story, each of them given a note or two to show off their singing. The ensemble was in the spotlight in a vignette showing Fosca’s tragic relationship with a faux Austrian Count Ludovic played with such oily snark by Jos Jalbuena that served to explain Fosca’s sickness.
Director Guevara has said that he is a devoted student of Sondheim -- and it showed. There were pauses, an extended line here and there that served to add nuance to letters and situations I have never heard anywhere else.
The decision to feature a full 16-piece orchestra added more impact to when it was needed -- jarring with the clash of cymbals and percussion, or more more heartfelt and heavenly with the strings and winds. "Passion" was supposedly meant to be performed with a 16-piece orchestra, so this was a rare treat for Sondheim afficionados.
Speaking of visuals, Zenaida Gutierrez’s costumes from the military garb of the men to the women’s dresses were fashion eye candy. The polar opposites of Clara and Fosca were made more apparent comparing the drab browns and blacks of Fosca’s outfits to Clara’s numerous colorful dresses befitting a Milanese fashion-forward lady.
While the set is simple, Shakira Villa-Symes made effective use of lighting to add drama. My favorite scenes was when Villa-Symes threw sunlight from one corner of the stage to the other.
While "Passion" is not the easiest of Sondheim’s works to appreciate, Guevara’s direction made this production a little more accessible. I thought that it wasn’t as operatic as it could be but this is to Philippine Opera Company’s credit as this is the best way to hand-hold musical theater fans into the world of opera.
From grand gestures such as the full orchestra to the nuanced direction and the complete transformation of Valderama-Martinez into Fosca, Philippine Opera Company’s "Passion" is a top-notch production that shows profound respect for Sondheim’s work. If you are a Sondheim fan, this is something that should not be missed.
“Passion” runs at the Carlos P. Romulo Theater at the RCBC Plaza, Makati with evening shows at 8 p.m. on September 20, 21, 27 and 28, and matinees at 3 p.m. on September 21, 22, 28 and 29.