Review: Opera Theater's 'Candide' has ups and downs
For all its brilliance, Leonard Bernstein's “Candide” has a troubled history in the theater.
Opera Theater's Summerfest production of “Candide” opened Saturday night and was problematic in expected and unexpected ways, but generated plenty of laughs at The Hillman Center for Performing Arts.
“Candide” was originally a collaboration between playwright Lillian Hellman and Bernstein, based on the famous novella by Voltaire. It ran only 72 performances in its first production.
Because Hellman prohibited her work from being used in any revivals, the first version can be heard only on the abbreviated original cast recording.
Summerfest's production used the version prepared for Broadway producer Harold Prince's revival.
The book is by Hugh Wheeler and the lyrics by Richard Wilbur, with additional lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and John Latouche.
“Candide's” sprawling plot remains, a problem that originated with Voltaire's work. Yet, the pileup of disasters for the main characters that take place in countless locations also serves as a parody of improbable opera libretti. One of the songs between the lovers is aptly titled “You Were Dead You Know.”
The wonders of Bernstein's music for “Candide” is apparent from the Overture alone. When one knows the show, and specifically what those musical ideas mean, it is even more appealing.
Saturday night's performance began poorly, partly because “Candide” was performed with an awful reduced orchestration. In addition, the way the notes were played made the Overture prosaic compared to what it can be.
James FitzGerald was uneven as Dr. Pangloss, the comic philosopher and teacher whose wisdom is arch gibberish — not so different from politicians, although the target of Voltaire's satire was a philosopher. FitzGerald's dramatic presence was strong, but his diction while singing was so unclear that much of the humor of the words of “Best of All Possible Worlds” was lost.
Daniel Teadt and Abigail Dueppen were appealing as Candide and his lady love Cunegonde. Teadt's singing gained assurance throughout the performance. Dueppen, however, fell short in “Glitter and Be Gay,” the show's most famous number. The number is a send up of opera coloratura; but the soprano failed to meet its technical demands.
The evening's standout performer was Andrey Nemzer as The Old Lady in drag and with a heavy Russian accent. His strongly sung portrayal was a hoot, deliciously campy without being overdone.
The only issue was that Nemzer's accent when speaking was so heavy it was difficult to make out some of his dialogue.
Although the staging was effective at times, it soon wore thin. The admittedly weaker second act included a badly cluttered stage.
And the way the comedy was presented to play to the audience undermined the finale.
The chorus “Make Our Garden Grow” became virtually a prayer for Bernstein, but was anticlimactic Saturday. It's also true that the chorus sang much too loudly in its climaxes.
“Candide” will be repeated at 7:30 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. July 15 at The Hillman Center for Performing Arts at Shady Side Academy, 423 Fox Chapel Road, Fox Chapel. Admission is $22.50 to $75. Details: 412-326-9687 or otsummerfest.org.
Mark Kanny is the classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or email@example.com.