Voltaire in the Air

Romance, comedy and tragedy mix well in Central City's Candide.

Aesthetics collide, myths explode and philosophies swirl about with dizzying delight in Candide. Just when the title character seems on the verge of articulating truths about the human condition, an unlikely catastrophe or comic accident spirits him to one of many far-off locales, where he contemplates life's mysteries all over again. The naive young man's struggle to reconcile cruel realities with the ideals he was taught -- "Everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds" -- are by turns ridiculous and touching, clever and vexing, an endless series of emotional (and stylistic) wrinkles that make Candide's quest a quintessential one.

Based on Voltaire's 1759 novel Candide or Optimism, Leonard Bernstein's operetta was regarded as a failure following its 1956 New York premiere. After years of tinkering by various artists (including Bernstein himself), eminent Broadway director Harold Prince presented a revised version of the work at the New York City Opera in 1982. And it's the Prince, or "Opera House" version, that's being presented by the Central City Opera as its season-opening production.

While a few scenes would benefit from an elevated sense of style, director Dorothy Danner's capable approach embraces all of the work's passion and most of its scathing humor. Her efforts to rein in its far-flung theatricality are aided by a strong cast of performers, a cavalcade of colorful sets and costumes (borrowed from the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis) and stout-hearted chorus members who play everything from robed monks to Commedia dell'Arte clowns to bloodthirsty warriors. Along with conductor Hal France, whose steady baton keeps the orchestra and singers in sync for most of the two-and-a-half-hour evening, Danner and company deliver an entertaining evening of high-minded fun.

Dr. Pangloss enjoys the best of all possible worlds in Candide.
Dr. Pangloss enjoys the best of all possible worlds in Candide.

Tenor William Burden renders an authoritative and romantic portrait of Candide, a truth seeker as tempest-tossed as Ibsen's Peer Gynt, but blessedly not as prone to that hero's tendency to speak at length in verse. The handsome singer displays a comedic flair during several scenes that require him to leap over time and place in the space of a few bars or lines. He's especially effective in the moments leading up to the final number, a glorious hymn to mankind's responsibilities toward life's bounties ("Make Our Garden Grow"). And even though his initial scenes with soprano Margaret Lloyd, who plays his fickle love interest, Cunegonde, are a tad chillier than one might expect from two youths in lust, the pair warm to each other (albeit in unpredictable ways) as the show progresses.

As the unfaithful, fallen one -- or is she as true a vision of loveliness as this world encourages? -- Lloyd has as much fun with the role of Cunegonde as the swift pacing and musical demands permit. Though a couple of fiendish high notes nearly escape her command, Lloyd renders "Glitter and Be Gay," the difficult parody of the Jewel Song in Gounod's Faust, with admirable skill and grace.

The (un)happy couple is nicely complemented by Gene Scheer's amusing turn as Candide's wise fool of a teacher, Dr. Pangloss, as well as Scheer's deft musings as a narrating Voltaire. Jeff Morrissey finds plenty of humor in the role of Maximilian, a vain prig who winds up serving as a skirt-wearing slave in one of many exotic locales. As the down-and-dirty Old Lady whose mother spoke "high middle Polish," Myrna Paris nearly steals the show during her lavish number, "I Am So Easily Assimilated." And David Gordon shines in his brief appearance as a foreign governor.

To be sure, purists and pedants might whine that Voltaire's keen satire doesn't mix well with Bernstein's romantic strains or the down-to-earth performances that Danner elicits. But every satire, however biting, contains a serious core that informs its lighter side. And both Bernstein's wondrous music and Danner's astute touches cultivate an atmosphere in which life's absurdities and hilarities comfortably, sometimes poetically, rub shoulders with its blessings and rewards.

 
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