A civilian response to Candide

Candide, Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein’s music for Candide is delicious. If only the work had a more disciplined and rewarding libretto.

Before I start spouting off about the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s presentation of Candide, allow me to apologize for my lack of qualifications for doing so.

In my book, critical opinion should be informed by knowledge and experience. This criterion work in my favour when I’m reviewing theatre—including musical theatre—for the Georgia Straight. I’ve been paying serious attention to theatre for almost 50 years now and reviewing it for 30.

But I have no specialized knowledge of music, and the VSO’s oratorio-style presentation of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide is primarily musical. So this isn’t an informed review: it’s an honest reaction from a guy who was very glad to get a free ticket.

Got it? Okay, good.

In my experience, Leonard Bernstein’s music is is dizzying combination of beauty, wit, and accessibility; listening to the song “It Must Be So” in Act 1, I got the same lovely ache in my heart that I get when I start to tear up at Theatre Under the Stars: it’s just so damn pretty. The orchestra, under Bramwell Tovey’s direction, impressed me with its precision. And, to my untrained ear, the lushness and variety of the music was almost overwhelming. Many of the performers in this mounting are terrific. 

But, as an entertainment, Candide offers radically diminishing returns. The book, which was originally written by Lillian Hellman and later rewritten by Hugh Wheeler, is based on a short story by Voltaire that satirizes a school of thought simply called Optimism. The oratorio version on view here was created for the Scottish National Opera in 1998.

In Candide, we seem to be somewhere in the 18th century, and the title character is a young Westphalian guy who’s being tutored by one Dr. Pangloss, of the Optimistic school. Basically, Pangloss’s position is that everything happens for a reason and we should all be happy about it.

But when the relatively low-born Candide falls in love with the more socially endowed Cunégonde, her brother, Maximillian, gets Candide tossed out of Westphalia, which, of course, exposes Candide to the chaos and cruelties of the real world.

The basic problem with the story is that it takes about five minutes to satirize Optimism, but this setting of Candide goes at it for two hours and 45 minutes, including a generous intermission. The action moves—arbitrarily—all over the world and the list of characters who come and go is endless. No wonder Candide so rarely receives full stagings. Even in this oratorio setting, the story is far too slight to maintain interest.

To make matters worse, the storytelling is handled by a Narrator, Richard Stuart, whom I found very hard to understand. Stuart handles his patter songs nimbly, but, the next time around—if there is a next time around—they should mike the guy when he’s speaking.

Still, there are many joys to be had in both the material and in this production.

The lyrics are often witty. Explaining why syphilis is a good thing, Dr. Pangloss, who believes the disease came from the New World, along with many other things, sings: “Without the little spirochete/We’d have no chocolate to eat.”

And, even when it’s sending up the conventions of bel canto opera, as in Cunégonde’s “Glitter and Be Gay”, which is about the diamonds she has earned from her work as a courtesan—as I’ve mentioned, it’s a long story—Bernstein’s music can be as thrilling and complicated as a trapeze act.

Singing Cunégonde, soprano Tracy Dahl pulls out all the stops, delivering a wildly impressive vocal performance and a (mostly) charmingly over-the-top acting job.

Mezzo Judith Forst plays an experienced whore called The Old Lady, and the power of her voice could slam you against the back wall.

Alex Shrader’s Candide possesses a pure tenor and, although his characterization emanates quiet charm, he could turn up the charisma dial; he’s the centre of the show, after all.

Members of the UBC Opera Ensemble fill out the rest of the roles, and the results are uneven, but soprano Francesca Corrado, who sings an ongoing comic character named Paquette has a voice of liquid beauty and impressive strength. And Sheldon Baxter, who plays Cunégonde’s protective bother, Maximilian, offers up one of the most charming performances of the evening—much in the manner of Neil Patrick Harris.

I’m very glad I went. I had a good time. I just wish Candide had let me get to bed earlier.

About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

Comments

  1. Richard Newman says:

    I agree that the book is, and has been in all its forms, problematic. And without the bells and whistles of a full production, the evening did get a little long. But I’ve loved this music for half a century- so much of it is absolutely sublime. And if you can keep a lump from your throat during the a capella part of “Make Our Garden Grow”, I’ll give you a dollar!

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