Review: Opera Center’s ‘Candide’ hits the mark
Special to The Aspen Times
A strong cast, led by tenor Jonathan Johnson and soprano Jen Lee, the conducting of George Manahan and a robust pit orchestra, bring Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” to vivid life on the stage of the Wheeler Opera House.
The smart, canny production, which opened Thursday, the first offering this summer from the Aspen Music Festival’s Opera Theater Center, scores a triumph. The first question to ask about any production of “Candide” is “which version?” Since the original 1956 Broadway production tanked, thanks in large part to the darkness of Lillian Hellman’s book, there have been at least a dozen. This one adds some interpolations and rearranging from later efforts to Hugh Wheeler’s 1973 version (which made it to Broadway in 1974), sometimes feels long, but it finds a contemporary balance between razor-sharp comedy and the dark emotional swings of the Voltaire novella from which it all derives.
It also emphasizes sex and violence more than usual. Moving “The King’s Barcarolle,” wherein six deposed monarchs decide to make their way together living off the land, into the final scene, closer to “What’s the Use,” wherein all the familiar characters have reached low points, allows the piece to end with irresistible momentum with the moving final ensemble, “Make Our Garden Grow.” The overall look suggests a European circus, with six tent poles, clown makeup and costumes that sport black Pierrot buttons. That fits the outlandish story, which, to poke holes in an optimistic philosophy, relies heavily on coincidence, not to mention characters who steadfastly resist reality.
Candide, an illegitimate relative raised in a Baron’s castle, falls in love with Cunegonde, the baron’s daughter. Also living in the castle, Cunegonde’s brother Maximilian and a prostitute named Paquette join them in thrall to their teacher, the relentlessly optimistic philosopher Pangloss. Scattered by war, they encounter one another (and a variety of colorful characters) in the most unlikely places, as Candide travels Europe and South America to survive, gain and lose fortunes, and eventually learn that it’s better to “do the best we know.”
Johnson’s focused, plangent tenor sings that line in the final ensemble. He pierces through the chorus at its moving climax. Thought he doesn’t cut the figure of a dashing leading man, his sweet demeanor suits the character. His voice strengthened as the evening progressed. Each of his solos, duets and ensembles was a little gem of confident singing and telling emotion. The most famous number, “Glitter and Be Gay,” finds Cunegonde in Paris. She has survived by selling herself to two men (at the same time), who have compensated her with jewels. Lee, clad in a pink dress fluffy with miles of tulle, sings the show-stopper coloratura aria crouching and standing inside a large wooden trunk, not only a perfect metaphor for her trapped condition but a way to keep the luxurious jewels and garments from view before she extracts them. Her glistening soprano reaches high E-flats with ease. She also manages to be funny and affecting simultaneously, wrapping herself in the final measures with a red boa of seemingly infinite length. As Pangloss, baritone Adrian Rosales narrates the story, exchanging his Voltaire wig for a black cap to become the teacher. It’s a lot to do, and Rosales keeps up with it. Deep-voiced Charis Peden, who made an indelible impression as the Beggar Woman in last summer’s “Sweeney Todd,” caught the absurdity and some strange accents as the Old Woman in this one. Her big number, “I Am So Easily Assimilated,” was larger than life. Laura Mixter, insinuating with worldliness, delivers her lines as Paquette with a voice that deserves as much attention as the vertically striped stockings her character flaunts. Baritone Jonathan McCullough (Maximilian) takes a journey from noble fop to something more telling. In the (mostly) speaking role of Cacambo, Gregory Rittiner approximates an Australian accent for no apparent reason that except it’s funny.
With virtually unlimited vocal talent in the Aspen program, this production also reverts to the original smaller roles that later versions combined or eliminated. Baritone Evan Bravos delivers a bang-up “Words, Words, Words” as Martin, a sardonic character often combined with Pangloss. “Candide” concludes its run tonight and Monday at the Wheeeler Opera House.
Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 19 years. His reviews appear in The Aspen Times.
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