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The 'Passion' Project By The Philippine Opera Company

Celebrating its 20th year, the Philippine Opera Company has staged Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Passion,’ and it’s a breathtaking production that reminds us how Sondheim can be a challenge, but always has its rewards

Stephen Sondheim’s Passion is one of his later works (1994), inspired by the film Passione d’Amore of Ettore Scola, a study of love, obsession, and manipulation. Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics, while James Lapine is responsible for the book. A production of the Philippine Opera Company to mark its 20th year, POC Artistic and Managing Director Karla Gutierrez has Robbie Guevara on board to direct Passion, and it’s simply a project he’s truly passionate about; and one he happily concedes is “the most difficult show I’ve ever directed.” It was a long held desire of Robbie to direct Passion, and it’s evident in the way this glorious production is staged —an intricate labor of love through and through.

Think of the film Fatal Attraction, but remove the gratuitous violence, and turn it into a 19th century period piece; and you have something akin to how Passion develops as a story. When the musical opens, we’re immediately thrust into an adult world of lust/love, with songs that echo these emotions. Giorgio (Vien King), a young soldier, is deeply involved in an affair with Clara (Jasmine Fitzgerald), an older woman. Stationed to a remote mountaintop garrison, Giorgio promises Clara to keep aflame their passions through letters. It’s at his new assignment that Giorgio meets Fosca (Shiela Valderrama-Martinez), a plain, sickly consumptive, who’s the cousin of Giorgio’s commanding officer. What develops and ensues is what makes up the emotional roller-coaster Passion provides. 

Making excellent use of life in the military as a counterpoint to the private affairs of the three main characters, Sondheim has the soldiers provide much of the levity and shafts of humor that punctuate the somber and at times, sordid mess, that the three are embroiled in. Taking on themes of obsession, of power and manipulation, and of defining love, Passion is a mature, unsettling psychological drama set to brilliant, edifying music and song.

Sondheim has never been one to offer traditional song structures, it’s more like stream of consciousness set to music; and Passion may even be more challenging than his earlier musicals. There is no heroic figure, or sympathetic protagonist—for some, Giorgio is simply a lustful philanderer, Clara an opportunistic adulterer, and Fosca a pathetic, deluded anti-heroine. In fact, this was what drove audiences batty, when Passion was first staged on Broadway; that they couldn’t latch onto, or identify with, any of the three. Each one will have particular issues with different members of the audience. 

But like a road accident we can’t avert our eyes from following, we are transfixed as the story and the glorious music unfolds. Shiela Valderrama-Martinez is nothing short of magnificent here, playing against type, and singing with pristine clarity lower notes than she’s ever been asked to express. The anguish, the arc from timid sparrow to possessive, manipulative bird of prey is a joy to watch. Whenever she sings, she’s still acting; and that’s more than I can say for several of the leads, female and male, I’ve seen in musicals staged here. 

If there is a consistent scene-stealer in the supporting cast, that prize would go to Noel Rayos as Lt. Toraso. His operatic bursts of singing, his asides, and facial expressions, they all lead in giving this musical its much-needed bursts of humor, irony, and lightness.

Running for three weekends, Passion is a definite must-watch in this triple threat of a Sondheim season (Company and the upcoming Sweeney Todd the other Sondheim productions). It may be the more challenging of the musicals to take on, but the rewards are plentiful; and I salute the Philippine Opera Company and director Robbie for gifting us with this brilliant staging. Robbie has “stretched” the cast in ways that has us seeing them, especially Shiela, in a whole new light. Bravo!

Passion from September 14 to September 29 at the Carlos P. Romulo Theater, RCBC Plaza. Tickets are available via TicketWorld.

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