Songs from Musicals: #17, “Garden Sequence,” from Passion

Honorable mentions: “Farewell Letter,” “Happiness”

No musical begins with so strong a statement of what will come next as Passion. Two handsome people, both youngish and strong, lie in bed together. “I’m so happy I’m afraid I’ll die here in your arms,” the woman sings. “What would you do if I died like this, right now, here in your arms?” Even in moments of happiness, the post-coital curl of lust that rubs its back catlike against the definition of love, this couple has death on the brain. There is nothing simple about this pair’s love, as we discover later on; the woman is married with a small child, and the man a soldier. Were she to leave her husband for her soldier, she would lose her child outright. The man, at the beginning of the play, is patient. He recognizes that he cannot keep her just yet. He seems almost pleased with it; when he is transferred, he is unworried. “We’ll make love with our words,” he tells her.

And so begins that rare epistolary musical, one that has virtually no songs worth singing in a revue or a cabaret. Passion feels like a giant recitative; even its arias tend to be understated. It leaves plenty of space to ask its question: “Is anyone actually in love?” The answer, as we find out in the back half of the play, is “Eh?”

I like “Garden Sequence,” and I like the way that it matches the slow crawl of the musical itself. The rest of the play is writ large on this scene: even though Giorgio recognizes that Fosca is not beautiful like his lover, Clara, he understands her to be a woman. That is the first step; he recognizes that she shares certain traits with the woman he left behind. It’s something about the smell, he thinks, the literal warmth on her clothing. “How ridiculous,” he writes, “to be looking at her and be thinking of you.” All the same, it is the first time he has touched a woman since he left Clara in Milan. There’s nothing romantic about it; he’s holding an invalid’s arm so she can walk around a morbid little garden in the mountains without collapsing. And yet it recalls the romance, the bed, the room, the affair.

Fosca’s pain is evident in this scene. It’s our first clear sign that she has fallen for Giorgio, who is everything she isn’t: handsome, strong, desirable, in a relationship. But she argues that she and Giorgio have more in common than it would appear. She and Giorgio are both aesthetically minded, reading the world differently than the Giorgio’s fellow officers do. “We’re the same,” she says. “We are different.” Fosca’s protestation has weight in this scene, although it is not until later in the musical that we realize that she was right all along. Until then, she can do little more than listen to the man she adores speak of the virtues and tastes of an active love that she has given up any hope of receiving.

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