Candide is one of those hybrids (opera/Broadway show) that seemed so radical and ungainly a child when it first appeared in 1953 that it shocked and raised the critical ire of many. No one was quite sure where or how to produce it. So, naturally it was a must for the mercurial appetites of a certain director who is all about developing 21st century composers, librettists, and singers to throw out the boundaries between opera and musicals and redefine the best of all possible music-theatre.
Washington National Opera’s Artistic Director Francesca Zambello imported the production from her work in 2015 at The Glimmerglass Festival. It comes this season as Washington National Opera’s contribution to the Kennedy Center’s centennial birthday tribute to America’s most celebrated 20th century composer, Leonard Bernstein.
The work is a great choice and feels in many ways a made-to-order volley against the excesses, hypocrisy, and mayhem of our times. Musically, it integrates modern classical with American popular and jazz idioms. The work is tricky, complicated and somewhat conflicted not unlike its progenitor.
Candide was clearly Bernstein’s beloved early work so much so that he kept returning to it, bringing in different writers and tweaking things. The first job of a company is to find which iteration to use.
For this production, Zambello chose to hybridize the work further. She chose a less known version by John Caird, created originally for The Scottish Opera Company, which among other things brought back more bite from Voltaire’s original writings.
At the same time, she dumped the reduced orchestrations that felt pit-band thin and would not do for a centennial celebration. Zambello incorporated Bernstein’s full overture.
Hearing the WNO orchestra under the stellar baton of Nicole Paiement, one can only delight in the expressive riches of Mr. B. at the height of his compositional powers. Nobody pulls together an orchestral sound filled with timpani and percussion with brass more brilliantly! All this sets up what Zambello was going for: the best of all possible Candides.
For those who do not know the original satire, the writer Voltaire, née François-Marie Arouet, created an altogether naïve alter-ego, Candide, a young man who like himself was born a bastard to a nobleman, but unlike himself was easily duped and abused. Candide travels throughout the old and new worlds clinging to the philosophy of optimism taught him by his tutor, Pangloss, despite all evidence to the contrary.
It’s a story that runs pell-mell, through dozens of adventures, with his meeting multiple characters, and driven by a rhythmic score at break neck speed. Characters are more caricatures. You need to go along for the ride of your life.
To frame the picaresque tale is Voltaire himself, who in this production seems to have invited the entire Kennedy Center Opera House into an enormous warehouse in Paris. Voltaire (Wynn Harmon) plays both stage manager, raising the curtain to share the story, and conductor, waving his arms over the orchestra in the pit below. The delicious opening has him bowing, waving, and flirting with the audience. Then he pulls open a trunk and, magically, pulls out what appears to be dozens of performers clad in white period undergarments. The stage fills with members of the sizeable ensemble who settle amongst what appears as debris of the Enlightenment but will be artfully used as props to tell the tale. The overture comes to an end, and the players pose like ghosts in the glare of icy lighting. For us in the audience it’s like getting an inside the park home run in the first five minutes.
Harmon’s Voltaire transforms into Dr. Pangloss, and seamlessly, with the help of a portable blackboard, the scene changes to a classroom where the learned doctor holds forth on his philosophy to his four pupils at the baronial hall of Westphalia.
Though war may seem a bloody curse/It is a blessing in reverse
When cannon roar/Both rich and poor
By danger are united/ (Till every wrong is righted!)
Philosophers make evident/The point that I have cited
‘Tis war makes equal – as it were –/The noble and the commoner
Thus war improves relations/ Now onto conjugations!
(And we thought we had invented a world of alternate facts!)
While the story dashes along in this vein – wickedly smart and caustically contemporary – the tone keeps changing through Bernstein’s music, often breaking into sweetness and building the case for humanity. Bernstein’s own American brand of optimism and his longing for love in a better world bleeds through, and this blood coursing through the work creates both a tension and pleasurable depth.
At the center of the work is, after all, a lover, Candide, and the girl of his dreams, and, as in all great music-theatre, that means great songs that break open the heart. Alek Shrader and Emily Pogoreic have perfect voices for their roles but also the theatrical abilities to play the built-in tensions and contradictions.
The role of Cunegonde is musically more showy. “Glitter and Be Gay” is a coloratura showstopper demanding serious operatic chops. Pogoreic delivers vocally with panache.
But more importantly, she and director Zambello have made a fascinating dramatic journey out of this aria. Instead of presenting a silly songbird simply delighting in grabbing up bright jewels, together they’ve mined both music and words to expose a woman who has come through war, rape, and desperate reversal of fortune and is at a breaking point. She’s grasping at straws with “If I’m not pure at least my jewels are.” We understand completely that her mask is cracking while she sings, “How well I conceal the dreadful shame I feel.” Every trill vocalizes her anguish or bipolar flip-flop. She begins to fling the jewels around the stage and at the men, real and imagined, who have abused and betrayed her. When she lingers over throwing away a last tiara, we laugh only feebly, forgiving her that she maybe wants to have a little bling to prop her up, but when on the final note she firmly plops that little crown on her head, we want to cheer her defiance as a survivor.
Shrader has a pure and lyrical tenor quality, and his voice and to my mind is perfectly suited to Candide. Bernstein has given the character simple melodies, often in minor keys with falling lines that are emotionally affecting. Perhaps because Candide’s songs don’t have the typical operatic tenor throbbing build up to a final ringing note, the WNO audience didn’t break into applause that I think he deserved.
closes May 26, 2018
Details and tickets
There are other terrific young performers who feature in the show. Matthew Scollin stands out, returning to the dual role of James/Martin from when I saw him at Glimmerglass. As Martin, he delivers an unforgettable theatrical number raging at the world with great bear swipes and spitting into the air with his enormous and disgusted “Ha!” Edward Nelson camps his way through his scenes as the loathsome, pompous legitimate half-brother to Candide to the delight of the audience. He reminds me of the young pimply David Warner in the classic film Tom Jones.
Zambello has changed certain aspects of casting for the better for today’s audience. Captain Vanderdendur becomes a female, and Kerriann Otaño demonstrates a powerful voice and presence. Even more significantly, Frederick Ballentine plays Cacambo not as a Stepin Fetchit caricature but as he pointedly says, “I’m a quarter Dutch, a quarter German, and one hundred percent African!” His character comes across as filled with dignity and even level-headed heroism.
Mind you, Voltaire’s political skewering of church and state lays it on thick, giving otherwise the show’s comedic aspects equal opportunity for a most politically incorrect spewing of stereotypes in almost Mad Magazine style. Jew, Inquisitor, Catholic pedophilia, gay, even cripples get mocked in dizzyingly fast fashion. Ouch!
There are some holes in the work. While Voltaire/Pangloss starts out so clearly in charge, the character gets lost, goes off the map for an audience, and this weakens the structure. Musically, while the role is written as a character voice, there was a lack of vocal presence by Harmon in such a big house.
More disappointing was – forgive me, Lord of Opera – Denyce Graves as the Old Lady. Having Washington’s favorite diva in the show certainly built anticipation and sold tickets, and her entrance got an opera world’s loud handclapping welcome. However, her diva was showing and it kept pulling us all down in a slog. By parking center stage and delivering her lines with hammy melodramatic pauses, she stuck out, lost any comedic richness of character, and slowed down the pace of the entire show. The mezzo-soprano’s glorious colors were not in evidence.
The El Dorado scene is always an extended fanciful dreamworld and has been conjured many ways by inventive design teams. Somehow at Glimmerglass it went by without assaulting my senses. In the grand proscenium of KC’s Opera House, the Busby Berkley spectacle felt not only unnecessary but one that didn’t serve the idea of an Eden of beauty and happiness. Showgirls strutting with great headdresses and ostrich fans looked only like they were working hard while the sheep rather than be adorable were bored and snotty. The Aztec-inspired Hollywood Bowl king and queen were unintelligible. Maybe all this was the point, but I think Candide is supposed to be making a courageous choice to leave paradise. His decision became a non-event.
The design team of James Noone, (Scenery), Jennifer Moeller (Costumes) and Mark McCullough (Lighting) have otherwise created a magnificent world to play out the tale.
The most extraordinary aspects of the production had to do with the sheer energy and virtuosity of the entire ensemble. In the famous Auto da Fé scene, they sing sotto voce while twitching, kicking, shaking, and stomping in choreographic combinations that are cross between Bob Fosse and Marat Sade ‘s bedlam madness.
At the end Candide and company sing the glorious “And Make our Garden Grow.”
It is fitting for our new world, that surrounding him to put all their efforts to work and build a true community are gay (Maximilian), African (Cacambo), reformed sex worker (Paquette), academic (Pangloss), wise crone (Old Lady,) and #MeToo survivor (Cunegonde.)
“Dazzling” is what the ensemble displayed opening night at the Kennedy Center. This is where Zambello and choreographer Eric Sean Fogel, along with chorus master Steven Gathman have collaborated to bring out what is possible with the best of all possible triple-threat performers. Singing, dancing, and acting, the young performers could execute everything thrown at them.
I am reminded with Helen Hayes coming up next week that there is an ensemble category. Next year, I’ll be pulline for the Candide ensemble.
Candide. Composed by Leonard Bernstein. Book adapted from Voltaire by Hugh Wheeler in a new version by John Caird. Lyrics by Richard Wilbur (also Stephen Sondheim, John La Touche, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker and Leonard Bernstein.)
Conducted by Nicole Paiement. Stage Direction by Francesca Zambello. Associate Director/Choreographer Eric Sean Fogel. Scene Design by James Noone. Costumes Design by Jennifer Moeller. Lighting Design by Mark McCullough. Sound Design by David C. Zimmerman. With Alek Shrader, Emily Pogoreic, Denyce Graves, Wynn Harmon, Edward Nelson, Matthew Scollin, Frederick Ballentine, Alexander McKissick, Keriann Otaño, Eliza Bonet, Andrea Beasom, Tom Berklund, Jaely Chamberlain, Andrew Harper, Katherine Henly, Michael Hewitt, Nicolas Houhoulis, Jarrod Lee, Danny Lindgren, Alison Mixon, Ameerah Sabreen, Louis Morrison Waycott, and Members of the Washington National Chorus and Washington National Opera Orchestra. Production from The Glimmerglass Festival. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.