Look. Leonard Bernstein is one of the finest composers of the last century. Voltaire is one of the greatest satirists of all time. Candide is an operetta based on Voltaire's novel of the same name and composed by Bernstein. It's funny, biting, thought-provoking, and moving. And the music? It's to die for. You've no good reason to miss this production.
The second in Light Opera Oklahoma's season, Candide, directed by Eric Gibson, is the story of an illegitimate young man, Candide (Brian Cheney) who falls in love with the baron's daughter Cunegonde (Diana McVey), and is banished from the castle where he lives for expressing his affection for her. (They're, uh, caught in the act.)
Candide's tutor, Pangloss (Patrick Jacobs), has impressed upon his student Leibnizian optimism, which argues that this must be the best of all possible worlds and therefore everything that happens must happen for the best of all possible reasons. After his banishment, Candide suffers hardship after hardship. This tests the naive lad and his commitment to this philosophy.
The novel's form parodied the bildungsroman novels popular of this time. Because the operetta mimics that form, the action jumps from episode to episode in Candide's life, culminating in an experience that explains away all misery and resolves all conflict. Though both the novel and the operetta are highly satirical, and therefore mostly cynical, the show's final song "Make Our Garden Grow" is a pure expression of earnest contentment and conviction.
Onstage, it is a sublime moment. The well-tuned company and precise orchestra pull out all the stops during this final number. The eight a cappella measures resonate with truth and beauty.
Live and Let Laugh
Many people will take issue with the show's satirization of warfare and religion. But that's the point of satire. The laughter that satire generates has a power to create and to destroy. By publicly shaming poor decisions, illogic and hypocrisy it encourages their polar opposites: clear-minded rationality and morality.
Some will withdraw from that powerful, corrosive laughter, and retreat further into the hypocrisy that earned them scorn.
Others will join the laughter, realizing parts of themselves are not only laughable, but mutable. Having experienced shame, they are not condemned to the behavior and beliefs that caused it.
Candide, and to a lesser extent his companions, experience shame and scorn during their journey for their commitment to Leibnizian optimism, to the belief that everything happens for a positive reason. They use their shame, their tragedies, as a crucible in order to forge a new set of beliefs, a new way of living.
This, coupled with the masterful work of Bernstein and the lively talent of this company, is the reason that "Make Our Garden Grow" is such a powerfully moving piece of music. It's not that Candide has finally discovered the "right" philosophy. It's that he has endured such hardships, and found the intellectual courage to throw off his old, malfunctioning philosophies in favor of one that makes more sense in light of his experience.
Cheney rises to the difficult role of Candide, and masters the challenging music. To hear someone sing like this, with such an appearance of effortlessness, inspires an almost painful relief, like the massage of a knotted muscle.
His counterpart McVey has impressive pitch control and an even more impressive vibrato. Her diction could be stronger.
Jacobs plays several roles in addition to Pangloss but fulfills the duties of narrator in this production. He commands attention. His intentions are clear, his movements and gestures crisp, his voice precise.
Melissa Parks as the Old Lady is a special treat. I'm a sucker for a Russian dialect, but Parks's relish of her comedic role is a hoot.
Gracing the Stage
Of special note is the production's concept. Dr. Voltaire sleeps in a chair onstage as the audience enters and seats itself. During the overture, the most challenging piece of music in the entire show, Voltaire scribbles in and pages through a book, still sleeping. He becomes the music's amanuensis, a scribe of the inspiring orchestra. I imagine a purist might criticize this choice as diminishing the instrumentalists' efforts, but I'm a visual person. For me, this special bit of staging did not detract from the orchestra's efforts but instead enhanced them. The conductor James Bagwell confidently pilots his orchestra through this overture's dangerous channels.
This emphasis of the play's staged-ness continues throughout. Props and scenery fly on and off with the actors. Even a ship's mast, representing a long oceanic voyage, is held aloft by a few tireless cast members. The effect is that we never quite slip into total suspension of disbelief, and are kept aware that we are watching artifice, something intended to sway our emotions and challenge our intellect. The concept thus increases the show's satirical impact.
And it is the satire, even with such beautiful, affecting music, that is most important. Bernstein could have written an operetta about anything, but he chose to adapt Voltaire's novel. It's our responsibility to ask why, and to respond honestly to the emotions it evokes, even if those emotions challenge deeply seated beliefs and convictions.
Candide plays throughout the Tulsa SummerStage Festival. For show times, tickets, or more information visit www.tulsapac.com or call 596-7122.
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