Using a glittering language that owes a debt to Ravel, Stephen Sondheim has created one of his most ravishing scores, that in actual performance seems more like a tone poem rather than a conventional musical. In a single arc, the music flows seemingly straight through from beginning to end, with small motifs appearing, combining in intricate patterns and then receding. The sensuous result is some of the composer's best work.
The story here is an odd one, that some listeners may find a bit puzzling: a sickly woman (Fosca) falls in love with a much-healthier soldier, who eventually leaves his (also much-healthier) girlfriend for the sicklier one. Not the most believable scenario -- on paper, that is -- until the great Sondheim illuminates the touching emotions lurking just below the surface.
As Fosca, Donna Murphy (who won a Tony Award for her portrayal) makes a strange character come to vivid life, and sings the aching songs with a luster that drills them into the memory. A highlight is the searing "I Wish I Could Forget You," in which she dictates an imaginary letter to Giorgio, played by the wonderful Jere Shea. The incandescent Marin Mazzie plays Shea's girlfriend Clara, and is also in beautiful voice in her many "letter scenes," as well as those in which she combines her liquid voice with others. The score is chock full of Sondheim's soaring melodic lines and his usual heart-rending lyrics.
The recording quality is excellent -- quite natural, with realistic balances between the orchestra and the singers evoking an actual stage production. If I recall, the original Broadway orchestra was augmented with extra musicians for the recording, resulting in an even more sumptuous sound -- an excellent decision. Highly recommended.