Life is happy for Candide is Westphalia. He lives in the land’s most beautiful castle, and his beloved Cunégonde has consented to be his wife. No wonder he is so willing to accept Dr. Pangloss’s philosophy that this world is the best of all possible worlds. Little does Candide know that the world with all its cruelty, deception, avarice, hypocrisy, and natural disaster, is about to beat that optimism out of him.
It doesn’t sound like the makings of a comic opera, but that’s exactly what you get from Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, based on Voltaire’s Candide, ou l’Optimisme, a wicked lampoon of our nasty world and anyone who thinks it’s all for the best or God’s plan or some such thing.
To stage Candide, Long Beach Opera takes a minimalist approach, making significant cuts to the score and script, while framing the entire show as a kind of “improvised rehearsal” (as director David Schweizer says in the production notes). After an opening bound to confuse patrons thrown off-balance by the nontraditional, the “show”‘s director, played by LBO mainstay Robin Buck, makes his casting choices—including himself as narrator/Voltaire and Pangloss—and we’re in Baron Thunder-ten-Tronckh’s castle as Candide’s world is about to be turned upside-down.
There’s no telling whether LBO’s framing device is employed purely for aesthetic reasons or is born out of material limitations. Whatever the case, this Candide is light on spectacle. Costuming is limited to a few caricature strokes, and sets are basically nonexistent. Settings—which are many in Candide—are evoked with little more than dialog and some simple but charming shadow puppetry.
Fortunately, the whimsy of the presentation fits the material. But LBO’s Candide —perhaps especially because of the conceptualization—lives or dies almost entirely on its performances, and there’s definitely a beating heart here. With a cast of only eight (not including the stagehands—see below), there is barely a moment’s rest between them, with Schweizer doing a fine job keeping the proceedings in perpetual motion. But the cast is all carbed up, so the energy never flags. Buck is the linchpin, despite a vocal role that takes a backseat to those of Candide and Cunégonde. The wryness of his narration/”direction” helps keep the focus on the fun. When he does sing, he does yeoman’s work, particularly on”Dear Boy”, which features some of Candide‘s most clever lyrical turns.
Todd Strange is a strong Candide, marrying Candide’s wide-eyed naiveté with a voice that never falters. He’s so natural to the role that you can lose track of how much he’s really doing. But opposite him, there’s no way not to follow how fantastic Jamie Chamberlin sings Cunégonde. Written to let a good coloratura really show off, Chamberlin is strong throughout and dazzles in places, particularly during “Glitter and Be Gay”, a number that leaves no doubt whether an opera company’s got the right woman for the job.
The show’s weakest element is the ensemble vocals, where it often seems the cast members are slightly out of sync with each other, which makes it difficult to decipher the lyrics. This hurts particularly during a bit of a capella during the finale. Here the lyrics are clear enough; it’s just that something isn’t meshing.
Compositionally, Leonard Bernstein is Leonard Bernstein for a reason, and Candide is that rara avis that appeals equally to fans of opera and musical. If there is a hitch in Bernstein’s giddy-up—or at least in LBO’s truncated version—it’s that most of his best work comes before intermission, leaving Act 2 a little pale by comparison, even if the final two songs, “What’s the Use?” and “Make Our Garden Grow”, close the show on a high note.
Augmenting the cast of eight are members of Rogue Artists Ensemble, who wordlessly perform as extras and on-stage stagehands, creating atmosphere and mise en scène with shadow puppets, overhead projectors, and robust use of various materials you might find at the 99-cent store. A showpieces along these lines are the half-life-size cardboard puppets the Rogues make dance in “Auto-De-Fé”.
Candide is a perfect opera for those who are intrigued by the artform but turned off by its potential ponderousness. Long Beach Opera’s playful take goes far to further Bernstein’s revelry in Voltaire’s comic cynicism.
Plus, a funny thing happens on the way to disabusing Candide of the illusion that this is the best of all possible worlds: he comes to find that optimism is not completely misplaced. It is we, you see, who create a large part of the world around us. Everything may not be for the best, but we can make the best of this terribly flawed world we share—not by turning that frown upside-down, but pulling our weight to cultivate the kind of life that’s worth living. Bernstein and company play up that side of Voltaire’s Candide, and Long Beach Opera sure don’t hide that light under a bushel.
CANDIDE LONG BEACH OPERA • CENTER THEATER (300 E OCEAN BLVD) • LONG BEACH 90802 • 562.432.5934 LONGBEACHOPERA.ORG • SATURDAY 2:30PM + 8PM • $29–$137.25; STUDENTS $15 • JANUARY 30 ONLY
(Photo credit: Keith Ian Polakoff)