Over the past two years the Ravinia Festival has been doing Stephen Sondheim right, delivering splendid revivals of Sweeney Todd and A Little Night Music. This weekend’s concert staging of Passion marks the halfway point of Ravinia’s “Sondheim 75,” a five-year tribute to the revered Broadway composer (the series culminates in 2005, when he turns 75). Based on a 1981 Italian movie that was itself an adaptation of a 19th-century novel, Passion snared four Tonys when it premiered in ’94–even though it’s not an easy musical to warm up to, since it focuses on a woman’s morbid obsession for a young lieutenant. Like practically all of Sondheim’s works since A Little Night Music, this piece is complex and musically challenging enough that it could easily be presented as an opera–and that seems to be the idea here. The vocal leads for this weekend’s performances are highly disciplined, and Ravinia has put together a full orchestra that shares many members with the Lyric Opera’s pit crew. Passion is essentially a parable that wedges a man (Giorgio) between two women of opposite temperaments–Clara, who’s comely, sensual, and practical, and Fosca, who’s plain, sickly, and willful. Sondheim’s score, using a book by frequent collaborator James Lapine and orchestrated by Jonathan Tunick, starts Clara off in exhilarating major keys, then gradually shifts her into minor-key dejection–while Fosca’s parts start somber and shift in the other direction. Giorgio’s mood seems to shift to reflect whomever he’s with. To make the story persuasive and affecting, the three leads have to be able to match one another’s intensity, and Ravinia’s cast is up to the task: neither Patti LuPone (Fosca) nor Audra McDonald (Clara) needs any introduction, and Michael Cerveris (Giorgio) earned terrific notices in the same role at the Kennedy Center last year. Lonny Price directs; Paul Gemignani conducts. Friday and Saturday, August 22 and 23, 8 PM, Pavilion, Ravinia Festival, Green Bay and Lake Cook Rds., Highland Park; 847-266-5100. Sondheim will participate in a preconcert discussion Friday at 7 in the Martin Theatre.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Barron Claiborne.