‘Candide’ Charms

Lowell House Opera production rides comedy, strong acting to success

As the glittering chandeliers dim in the Lowell House Dining Hall, the lemon-yellow walls and checkerboard floors recede out of view and the chorus begins: “Fa Re Fa Si La Sol Fa Fa / Be welcome in Westphalia! / A scene of sweet simplicity, / Teutonical rusticity: / All hail, Westphalia!” If anything, “sweet simplicity” is a cruel joke for the unsuspecting operetta-goer. “Candide” is, in fact, a rigorous exercise in absurdity—a series of unfortunate events that takes its players on a ridiculous journey through Lisbon, Paris, Cadiz, Montevideo, Buenos Aires, “Eldorado,” and Venice on sinking boats, flying machines, and various other means of conveyance. A humorous and versatile cast overcomes the technical and spatial limitations necessary to producing such a globe-trotting show in a dining hall to deliver the operetta’s bawdy mockery of ‘l’optimisme.’

The work has a rather turbulent history, much like its naïve protagonist. “Candide” is one of three operatic works by Leonard Bernstein ’39, a towering figure in 20th-century music who is yet remembered more for his contributions as an influential conductor and public cultural icon than as a composer. Based on Voltaire’s satiric novella “Candide, ou l’Optimisme,” the operetta opened to generally unfavorable reviews as a Broadway musical in 1956. The libretto was then rewritten by Hugh Wheeler in 1973, with additional lyrical contributions from Stephen Sondheim, John Latouche, Lillian Hellman (who authored the initial libretto), Dorothy Parker, and Bernstein himself. This production of “Candide,” directed by Erin Huelskamp, music directed by Lidiya Yankovskaya and Aram V. Demirjian ’08, and produced by Ashley N. Kaupert ’12, Anh M. Lê ’12, and Chappel L.W. Sargent ’12, is the first for the Lowell House Opera.

The work chronicles the trials and tribulations of Candide (James B. Onstad ’09 in three of the six performances), the bastard nephew of a Westphalian baron (Brandon Milardo), as he attempts to court and marry the baron’s virginal daughter Cunégonde (Liv A. Redpath ’14 in this performance). Throughout his journey, Candide seeks to reconcile the brutal ugliness of human nature with the optimist teachings of his private tutor, the philosopher Pangloss (Anthony Garza). After years of globe-trekking, war, torture, slavery, wealth, poverty, and sexual abuse, Candide and Cunégonde ultimately retire to the Venetian countryside to live as subsistence farmers.

Several individual performances characterized by great comedic timing and vocal finesse propel this production forward and provide its main source of entertainment. Redpath is the clear vocal standout. Her crystal-clear tone, near perfect intonation, and a tragic-cum-endearing ethos in the classic showpiece “Glitter and Be Gay” turn it into the evening’s musical highlight. Ana Maria Ugarte is hilarious as the Old Lady, the daughter of a Pope and one-time princess who is missing half her buttocks but who maintains a cheerful outlook despite years of rape at the hands of pirates and an overambitious eunuch. Garza is tasked with creating not only Pangloss, but also several other roles, including the pessimist Martin and Cacambo, Candide’s manservant acquired somewhere between Buenos Aires and “Eldorado.” Garza’s Pangloss is unctuous, his Martin ghoulish. His campy Cacambo bears an eerie resemblance to Agador Spartacus from “The Birdcage.”

The production’s design reinforces the latter comparison: as if to emphasize the tongue-in-cheek naughtiness of Wheeler’s libretto, the Mark Buchanan-designed set resembles a cabaret, or even a gentleman’s club. With red velvet draping, vanity lighting, and a wall of mirrors, this backdrop underscores the sexual innuendo that pervades “Candide.” If the cabaret setup is clever, other staging choices are hit-or-miss. When Candide and company sail to the New World at the end of Act One, a chorus of supporting actors holds scrolls of glossy blue fabric high above the cast in a rather stale representation of the ocean. When Candide buys and sells golden sheep from the magical world of “Eldorado,” however, these fuzzy friends were humorously depicted as Beanie Baby-like stuffed animals tossed across the stage to enact the trade of goods. So while some aspects of “Candide” were kitschy or conventional, others work perfectly well as humorous commentary.

“Candide” does have some shortcomings. In a small dining hall where the orchestra pit and audience occupy the same floor space, the orchestra’s blare can easily overwhelm the singers. And some vocalists certainly had trouble projecting above their accompaniment. The orchestra, skillfully led by Demirjian, also experienced some problems with intonation, especially in the string and brass sections in the “Overture” and Candide’s lament in Act One. Still, these faults do not detract significantly from an otherwise engaging production, the merits of which are due in most part to Bernstein’s witty and melodically striking songs, straddling the line between high art and slapstick comedy.

—Staff writer Nicholas T. Rinehart can be reached at nrinehart@college.harvard.edu.

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