Aspen’s ‘Candide’ Hits the Mark

United StatesUnited States  Bernstein, Candide: Soloists, orchestra and chorus of Aspen Opera Theater Center, Wheeler Opera House, Aspen, Colorado. 11.7.2013 (HS)

Conductor: George Manahan
Director: Edward Berkeley
Choreographer: Jeanne Slater
Set Design: John Kasarda

Candide: Jonathon Johnson
Cunegonde: Jen Lee
Pangloss/Voltaire: Adrian Rosales
Maximilian: Jonathan McCullough
Paquette: Laura Mixter
The Old Lady: Charis Peden
Martin: Evan Bravos
The Governor: Tyson Miller
Cacambo: Gregory Rittiner
Grand Inquisitor: David Salsbury Fry

A strong mostly-student cast—led by tenor Jonathan Johnson and soprano Jen Lee—the conducting of New York City Opera veteran George Manahan and a robust pit orchestra brought Leonard Bernstein’s Candide to vivid life on the stage of the Wheeler Opera House at the Aspen Music Festival. The smart, canny production, which opened Thursday, the first offering this summer from the Aspen Music Festival’s Opera Theater Center, scores a triumph.

The first question to ask about any production of Candide is “which version?” Since the original 1956 Broadway production tanked, thanks in large part to the darkness of Lillian Hellman’s book, there have been at least a dozen. This one adds some interpolations and rearranging from later efforts to Hugh Wheeler’s 1973 version (which made it to Broadway in 1974), and if it sometimes feels long, it finds a contemporary balance between razor-sharp comedy and the dark emotional swings of the Voltaire novella from which it all derives. It also emphasizes sex and violence more than is usually done.

Moving “The King’s Barcarolle,” wherein six deposed monarchs decide to make their way together living off the land, into the final scene, closer to “What’s the Use,” wherein all the familiar characters have reached low points, allows the piece to end with irresistible momentum with the moving final ensemble, “Make Our Garden Grow.”

The overall look suggests a European circus, with six tent poles, ramps, clown makeup and costumes that sport black Pierrot buttons—all befitting the outlandish story, which, to poke holes in an optimistic philosophy, relies heavily on coincidence, not to mention characters who steadfastly resist reality. Candide, an illegitimate relative raised in a Baron’s castle, falls in love with Cunegonde, the Baron’s daughter. Also living in the castle, Cunegonde’s brother Maximilian and a prostitute named Paquette, join them in thrall to their teacher, the relentlessly optimistic philosopher Pangloss. Scattered by war, they encounter each other (and a variety of colorful characters) in the most unlikely places, as Candide travels Europe and South America to survive, gain and lose fortunes, and eventually learn that it’s better to “do the best we know.”

Johnson’s focused, plangent tenor sings that line in the final ensemble, piercing through the chorus at its moving climax. Thought he doesn’t cut the figure of a dashing leading man, his sweet demeanor suited the character, and his voice strengthened as the evening progressed. Each of his solos, duets and ensembles were little gems of confident singing and telling emotion.

The most famous number, “Glitter and Be Gay,” finds Cunegonde in Lisbon in this production. (It’s usually Paris.) She has survived by selling herself to two men (at the same time), who have compensated her with jewels. Lee, clad in a pink dress fluffy with miles of tulle, sings the show-stopper coloratura aria crouching and standing inside a large wooden trunk, not only a perfect metaphor for her trapped condition but a way to keep the luxurious jewels and garments from view before she extracts them. Her glistening soprano reached high E-flats with ease. She also managed to be funny and affecting simultaneously, wrapping herself in the final measures with a shocking pink boa of seemingly infinite length.

Baritone Adrian Rosales (Pangloss) narrated the story as Voltaire, exchanging his Voltaire wig for a black cap to become the teacher. It’s a lot to do, and Rosales kept up with it. Deep-voiced Charis Peden made an indelible impression as the Old Woman, catching the absurdity and some strange accents. Her big number, “I Am So Easily Assimilated,” was larger than life. Laura Mixter, insinuating with worldliness, delivered her lines as Paquette with a voice that deserves as much attention as the vertically striped stockings her character flaunted. Baritone Jonathan McCullough (Maximilian) takes a journey from noble fop to something more telling. In the (mostly) speaking role of Cacambo, Gregory Rittiner approximated an Australian accent for no apparent reason other than it’s funny.

With virtually unlimited vocal talent in the Aspen program, this production also reverted to the original smaller roles that later versions combined or eliminated. Baritone Evan Bravos delivered a bang-up “Words, Words, Words” as Martin, a sardonic character often combined with Pangloss.


Harvey Steiman