The Glitter of Candide Captured Superbly by LA Opera

United StatesUnited States Bernstein, Candide: Soloists and Orchestra of LA Opera / James Conlon (conductor), Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles, 3.2.2018. (JRo)

Erin Morley, Jack Swanson and Christine Ebersole in Candide. Photo: Ken Howard
Erin Morley, Jack Swanson and Christine Ebersole in Candide (c) Ken Howard

Voltaire/Pangloss – Kelsey Grammer
Candide – Jack Swanson
Cunegonde – Erin Morley
Paquette – Peabody Southwell
Maximilian – Theo Hoffman
The Old Lady – Christine Ebersole
James the Anabaptist/Martin – Matthew Scollin
Grand Inquisitor/Governor of Montevideo – Brian Michael Moore
Cacambo – Joshua Wheeker
Vanderdendur/Baroness – Taylor Raven

Eboni Adams, Andrea Beasom, Tom Berklund (Lisbonite), Tucker Reed Breder, Tim Campbell (Bavarian Captain, Second Inquisition Agent, Señor, Surinam Slave), Katherine Henly (Bavarian Corporal, Sheep), Amber Liekhus (Lisbonite, Queen of Eldorado), Danny Lindgren (King of Bavaria, Lisbon Sailor, Montevideo Priest), Amanda Compton LoPresti, Robert Norman (Holland Minister, Don Issachar, Señor, King of Eldorado), Steve Pence (Baron, First Inquisition Agent, Galley Captain), Michelle Siemens (Minister’s Wife)

Director – Francesca Zambello
Associate Director – E. Loren Meeker
Choreography – Eric Sean Fogel
Set Design – James Noone
Costume Design – Jennifer Moeller
Lighting Design – Mark McCullough
Chorus Director – Grant Gershon
Sound Design – Kai Harada

As Candide so clearly demonstrates, Leonard Bernstein could masterfully craft vivid melodies ripe with humor, pathos and complexity. With James Conlon conducting the LA Opera Orchestra, Bernstein’s music was galvanizing, every note infused with the sprightly wit and sweeping harmonies of the score.

Under the direction of Francesca Zambello this co-production of the Glimmerglass Festival, Opéra National de Bordeaux and Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse (employing the 1999 Royal National Theatre Version) had every element working together to create a Candide as close to perfect as one might hope. Superb staging, marvelous costumes and an evocative set created the backdrop for LA Opera’s cast of notable performers.

Erin Morley as the easily seduced Cunegonde, more in love with gold than Candide, was a vocal wonder, singing the showstopper ‘Glitter and Be Gay’ with acrobatic ease and managing every twist of the plot with spot-on comedic timing.

Jack Swanson’s Candide anchored the production through solid acting and strong singing. With her sensual mezzo, Peabody Southwell was perfectly cast as the lusty maid, Paquette, and baritone Theo Hoffman’s Maximilian was hilarious from beginning to end. Sporting a black beard, blonde wig and enough righteous indignation to light up the stage, he swaggered, swayed and sang with gusto.

Christine Ebersole proved why she is a theatrical treasure. A winning voice, spirited acting and remarkable charisma all blended to create the character of the Old Lady with only one buttock (the other slashed off in an act of cannibalism). In one of the many musical and verbal treasures of the score, she delivered the klezmer-Latin infused song ‘I Am Easily Assimilated’ to delightful effect. Bernstein himself called it a ‘Jewish Tango’ and wrote the words, while his wife, Felicia, added the Spanish verses (Bernstein’s tempo designation: ‘moderato hassidicamente’).

Kelsey Grammer in the dual role of Voltaire and the philosopher Dr. Pangloss had his work cut out for him. Narrating the action as Voltaire, acting the misguided Pangloss or singing alongside more powerful opera singers, he held his own. His weakness, if there was one, was in the narration. At times he rushed through the lines, as if anxious to be done with the overly wordy text.  It wasn’t an outstanding performance, but it was a mostly satisfying one. The remainder of the cast – Matthew Scollin, Brian Michael Moore, Joshua Wheeker and Taylor Raven – turned in charming portrayals.

As for the costumes, never were long johns, corsets, slips, bloomers, booties and stockings used to better effect. Bedecked in ivory undergarments, the ensemble transformed itself when character demanded, adding military jackets, woolen sheep ears, feathered headdresses, sailor jerseys or pirate bandanas. So imaginative was James Noone’s pared-down setting of stone archways, wooden beams and scaffolding that when a bench became a canoe, a wheeled platform became a ship, blue ropes became ocean waves or tossed Styrofoam blocks referred to the Lisbon earthquake, it delighted in its childlike simplicity.

The choreography of Eric Sean Fogel, danced by a talented ensemble, was a standout. It’s never easy creating inventive dance for opera or, in this case, operetta, but Fogel’s understanding of the circus atmosphere of Bernstein’s creation underpinned every gesture, giving voice to the music through movement.

Having seen the 1982 Candide mounted by New York City Opera, I became a lifelong fan of Bernstein’s loving exploration of the human condition. Whether approaching man’s search for meaning through questions of religious faith as in Mass, or through Voltaire’s enlightenment novel skewering the philosophy of Leibniz, Bernstein’s questing intelligence illuminated everything he touched.

Jane Rosenberg

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