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Thursday, July 13, 2023

The Beasts of All Possible Worlds

THE EXPERIENCE OF SEEING Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” has changed in recent years. I’ve seen a variety of productions – that variety aided by the fact that this opera, or show, or whatever category-defying label you wish to give it has gone through a dizzying variety of iterations during its 67 years of existence. (It’s got to be the only piece that lists both Dorothy Parker and Stephen Sondheim as lyricists.)

Brian Vu and Katrina Galka
Photo courtesy the Glimmerglass Festival
At its heart, of course, is Voltaire’s timeless, digressive tale of a good-natured naïf whose pursuit of love and a promised happiness takes him across a couple of continents and through a succession of violent conflicts, laced with improbabilities and coincidences that would make Baron Munchausen blush.

What’s happened recently, however, is that world events have caught up with the piece. What may have seemed like overblown satire in Voltaire’s time (indeed, he got himself kicked out of both France and Germany at various times) doesn’t seem so incredible any more.

So here’s Candide, gormless but game, a-burst with the optimism he’s learned from his tutor, Dr. Pangloss, and conceiving a passion for the lovely Cunegonde. All that stands in the way of this romance is the matter of birth. She’s an aristocrat; he’s a bastard. Ejected from the castle Schloss Thunder-ten-Tronck in Westphalia, he wanders through a succession of horrors while clinging to an eroding optimism. Tenor Brian Vu informs this role with a wide-eyed, gung-ho spirit.

True to that spirit, his numbers tend to be meditative, even mournful (“It Must Be So,” e.g.), unless he’s in a duet or ensemble – and his duets with Cunegonde (“O, Happy We,” “You Were Dead, You Know”) sparkle. That’s also because he has a great partner for those in soprano Katrina Galka. She has the big, big number of the piece, “Glitter and Be Gay,” which is difficult enough without costume and movement involved, but Galka is the first soprano I’ve seen who acted the song as brilliantly as she sang it. In other words, she inhabited it.

Bradley Dean and Ensemble
Photo courtesy the Glimmerglass Festival
This is a revival of a production that premiered at the Festival in 2015, directed by previous artistic director Francesca Zambello. She has a talent for exploring the depths of characterization offered by an opera – even when there aren’t many depths – and her “Candide” mixes the distinctive personalities of the principals with a chorus deployed to suit the particular requirements of a scene, whether it be bloodthirsty Inquisition fans or placid El Dorado denizens. The staging becomes part of the show’s propulsiveness, and was here recreated by Eric Sean Fogel.

Music is another part – the famous overture lets you know that right away, and, as he did in 2015, conductor Joseph Colaneri and his virtuoso orchestra explore all the nuance and charm of Bernstein’s bubbliest score.

Acting is another part, and the Festival shrewdly nabbed Bradley Dean for the dual role of Dr. Pangloss and Voltaire. His Broadway credits include everything from “A Little Night Music” to “Spamalot” with, of course, some “Phantom” thrown in, and the experience shows in the easygoing manner in which he switches between characters – keeping in mind that Pangloss himself undergoes a series of surprising transformations, always justifying his rotten circumstances with a cry of “It’s all for the best.” Dean has a excellent Broadway voice, which is only to say that he readily informs his songs with acting values that horrify the 57th-Street voice teachers but are vital to the success of this score.

Brian Vu and Ensemble
Photo courtesy the Glimmerglass Festival
Next to “Glitter,” the number most likely to steal the show is “I Am Easily Assimilated,” for which Bernstein wrote the witty lyrics. Entrusted here to contralto Meredith Arwady, it was the show-stopper it’s meant to be. It’s easy to oversell the piece, but Arwady kept her business in character and still brought down the house.

Everyone in the cast was outstanding – how often does that happen? – but let’s give special praise to Jonathan Patton in the dual role of Martin and James, Ryan Johnson as the merciless Grand Inquisitor (but is there any other kind?) and Jonathan Pierce Rhodes in the speaking role of Cacambo.

“Candide” has one of the more hopeful – and vocally stirring – finales that you’ll ever hear, especially with so much adjacent bloodshed. And we need that hope right now. We continue to dot the globe with imperialist wars, even as we see a brutal political schism in our own country. A country where we’re also witnessing racial, ethnic, and sexual-preference persecution the like of which has been dormant for years. And lampooning the Inquisition used to seem almost quaint, but our current crop of religious fanatics has grown even more fantastically fanatical as they infiltrate everything from school boards to congressional entities. Which is to say that “Candide” should serve as a dual inspiration: Not only should we tend our gardens, but we need to get out there and vote.

“Candide” runs through August 20. More info:


Music by Leonard Bernstein
Book by Hugh Wheeler
Lyrics by Richard Wilbur, Stephen Sondheim, John La Touche, Leonard Bernstein, and others.
Conducted by Joseph Colaneri
Directed by Francesca Zambello and Eric Sean Fogel
The Glimmerglass Festival, July 10

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