Washington National Opera

Candide: Glimmerglass Production Matured in Its Many Travels

Seen opening night, May 5, 2018

Reviewed by Ed Cloos

In the three years since it opened at Glimmerglass Festival, the Leonard Bernstein operetta hasn't actually changed, but it gained in timing and depth of characters as different casts played it.

The theater piece-operetta-opera grew out of productions as musical theater, a reduced concert version, and finally an operetta. Half a dozen writers are credited with the lyrics, but it was poet Richard Wilbur who brought them together in a polished text. It is based on Voltaire's Candide, a commentary on the philosophies of the German Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz who postulated that, since God created the world, and God is perfect, then this is the best of all possible worlds. This is simplified as the philosophy of optimism.

Leibniz wasn't actually some kind of crackpot, but was a major figure of modern science, mathematics, and philosophy. But it is untempered optimism that is the theme of Candide, and its entertaining absurdity.

The production in Washington followed productions with co-producing opera companies in Toulouse and Bordeaux in France, and a somewhat adapted one earlier this year with Los Angeles Opera. Casts have changed over the years, but many of the original cast members stayed with the production through the first three. Up-and-coming young tenor Andrew Stenson was Candide until this year.

On to Washington. Start with Alek Shrader, a tenor new to me. His Candide was more robust and seemed more able to withstand the terrible things that happen to his character. His tenor was strong and clear, and I found his acting right on.

The other half of the lead pair is Cunegonde, the object of Candide's affection and who had been raised with him since childhood. Soprano Emily Pogoreic, also new to me, was convincing both as a character and a singer. Her early aria, “Glitter and Be Gay,” with its very high (in nearly all productions higher than the score) “aha, aha, ahas.” is always the musical highlight of the show.

The character who taught them the philosophy of untempered optimism is Dr. Pangloss, their tutor in childhood and companion to the end. Wynn Harmon, who played the role in France, was effectively comic and showed a strong baritone. He also played the narrator role of Voltaire, who doesn't have to sing but merely talk in a tiresome way.

The fourth key role is that of “the old lady,” who rescues Cunegonde from one of her many crises, and sings one of the hits of the show, “I'm so easily assimilated.” That was Denyce Graves, the long-established star whose very appearance was greeted with enthusiastic applause. She sang the signature song without too much of the undefinable, vaguely Eastern European, accent so many have used in the part.

The recuperative powers of the main characters are beyond amazing as all survive near-death experiences. Cunegonde goes one better as illustrated in this exchange during one of the many reunions of the lovers. Candide sings: “You were dead, you know, shot and bayonetted too.” Cunegonde replies: “That is very true, but love will find a way” and soon follows with: “now let's talk of you.”

Back to the original point; how the production grew. The key, at least as I saw in the Kennedy Center, is that what we see on stage is the result of weeks of rehearsal. While Francesca Zambello is surely the director, the rehearsals, up to the final week, were conducted by her regular choreographer, Eric Sean Fogel, and he was credited as associate director. That is important because, although there is no actual dancing in the show, most of the Bernstein music is various forms of dance: waltz, tango, even gavotte.

Fogel tied the action together with them so subtly that one might not even notice. But it made the production stronger in many ways.

Audience enthusiastic applause showed that it was appreciated.

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