THEATER REVIEW: “Candide” @ Ohio Light Opera by Laura Kennelly

Through Fri 8/10

Whether or not this is the best of all possible worlds, I can not say, but this Ohio Light Opera production just might be the best of all possible Candides.  It maintains the lyric joyous foolishness Candide and Cunegonde learned from their idealistic teacher, Dr.  Pangloss, but it also acknowledges the gloomy realities of life.

Stage director Steven Daigle and conductor Steven Byess and the Ohio Light Opera team offered an utterly delightful production of Leonard Bernstein’s opera/music theater creation as interpreted by London’s Royal National Theatre in 1999.  Selecting this enhanced version (by John Caird) was a brilliant decision by Daigle (and the OLO).

The famously high-flying Bernstein (part New York City socialite, part exceptional conductor/teacher/composer) seems to have found a kindred soul in Voltaire, the wickedly satiric 18th-century elite. In Candide both geniuses manage to mock every pious convention, every war ever fought, and every lifetime love vow in existence. The ending, still touchingly sweet, seems to urge us all to “Make Our Garden Grow” (and mind our own business, the world will never be “fixed” because it’s run by foolish humans).

Plot summaries can be found online, but trust me — the plot is not important in Voltaire’s philosophical world. If Candide’s adventures are new to you, all the better. Let yourself be surprised by the ridiculous twists and turns of life in 18th-century Europe (and other mysterious lands). Happily, Voltaire’s creativity flourished unhampered by the constraints of reality.

For this blissfully great version, the four leads are double cast (Candide, Cunégonde, the Old Woman,  and Voltaire/Pangloss). I went on Sun 7/8. As Candide, Stephen Faulk’s rich tenor captured earnest, innocent Candide in both voice and manner. He seemed to move with grace and ease from our hero’s chirpy “Life is Happiness Indeed” in Act 1 to the dark lament of “It Must Be Me” in Act 2 (a sad reprise of “It Must Be So” from Act 1).

And as Candide’s soulmate, soprano Ivana Martinic wickedly and amusingly caught Cunégonde’s sprightly (blonde) nature. She also handled her character’s difficult vocal part as if it were easy. (It is not, especially in “Glitter and Be Gay.”) They made a loveable couple and we wished them happiness

Alas, it was not to be.

They were misled by Dr. Pangloss who taught them that no matter what, “this is the best of all possible worlds.” Ted Christopher as Voltaire/Dr. Pangloss morphed into those two gentlemen making every word (spoken or sung) crystal clear, thus allowing us to follow easily remarks both sarcastic and sensible. Everything he said, of course, proved nonsense by story’s end.

As the Old Woman, our heroine’s servant, mezzo-soprano Hannah Kurth reveled in her characters “troubles” (especially as she  described her missing body part) with a light comic touch. As she tells Cunégonde, “We Are Women,” so life is bad.

Soprano Caitlin Ruddy brought comic cheer to single-minded and sexy maid Paquette as she and Dr. Pangloss accidentally demonstrated the facts of life to the until-then innocent Candide and his sweetheart. Baritone Boyd Mackus as Martin (he also plays James, the Anabaptist) earnestly tries to “convert” Candide to cynicism in “Words, Words, Words.”

The rest of the considerable ensemble portrayed the various personages — from royals to soldiers to sailors — that shaped the lives of  Candide and Cunégonde. The full orchestra, especially in the overture (which is famous by itself), fully exposed the beauty of Bernstein’s score.

Voltaire’s wide-ranging satire covers much of the known world (and some not-yet-found such as the fabled El Dorado and its treasures) and, as a consequence, there are many set changes on the functional set designed by Kiah Kayser. Costume designer Charlene Gross successfully used dress to convey everything from the elegance of the court to the cuteness of the sheep. (The sheep were bigger scene stealers than the famous “children and dogs” that actors often complain about. Clad in white and black, with little red floppy ears, and holding prancing hoof hands before them, they nibbled at the set, the characters singing next to them, bleated soft “mehs” and generally had fun. Voltaire would have loved them. I did.)

There’s a note of gloom in the second act (and some songs not included in previous versions I’ve seen). However the final scene with the whole cast surrounding Candide and Cunégonde, all radiating love, acceptance and the will to continue, as they sing the rousing finale, “Make Our Garden Grow,”  just lifts sadness away. Many grins on many faces as we left.

BOTTOM LINE: If you think you’ve seen Candide before, expect to be surprised (and very happy). This is an excellent production with a stellar cast of singers and actors. It’s more than worth the drive to Wooster. Quick, catch it while you can.

Ohio Light Opera

[Written by Laura Kennelly]

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