Leonard Bernstein, CANDIDE, Tracy Dahl (Cunégonde), Judith Forst (The Old Lady), Alek Schrader (Candide), Richard Suart (narrator, Pangloss), Soloists and Chorus from the UBC Opera Ensemble, VSO/ Bramwell Tovey, Orpheum, June 8, 2015.

Candide is a merciless satire on human vanity and the folly of Western philosophy. Despite the horrific evidence to the contrary, philosophers from the Greeks onwards have insisted on seeing man as a rational animal living in a rational universe. If you are going to treat this discrepancy in a work of literature, you will either tell an unremitting horror story or one that laughs at the chasm that lies between human experience and optimism regarding it. Candide does a bit of both, with its innocent hero trying desperately to cling to his tutor-philosopher’s dictum that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds (à la Leibnitz), while undergoing horrific adventures that prove the opposite. Voltaire submits his hapless hero to atrocity after atrocity—so exaggerated as to be ludicrous, though such exaggeration is a ghastly feature of such experiences. The outlandish satire works as a dystopian piece of fiction but makes for a strange subject of an operetta, let alone a musical—or even an opera. And yet, whatever it was Bernstein wrote (he couldn’t seem to make up his mind) it provides a brilliant piece of musical theatre.

Much of its vitality lies in its madcap structure, very bits-and-pieces, very episodic. The action is all over the map—literally—with events taking place in various parts of Europe and, in Act 2, the new world, including the legendary realm of El Dorado. This structure suits the work’s satiric aim. It is not so much a story as a series of demonstrations of its main point: the world is a terrible place and we must learn not to expect too much from it. The main dramatic action lies in the demonstrations, not the learning, which comes only at the end, allowing for a series of episodes along the way showing the discrepancy between reality, the hero’s false expectations of it, and his tutor’s hilarious rationalizations after the fact. Yet there is dramatic preparation for the ending by the interspersing of Candide’s sad lyric reflections on his experiences.

Complementing the plot structure is the wildly eclectic music. The vocal writing is varied, some numbers sounding like Broadway ‘speaking songs’ (‘Dear Boy’), others mixing this style with that of a more standard aria (Cunegonde’s ‘Glitter and be Gay’), more purely lyrical songs/arias (‘Candide’s Meditation’), and beautiful chorales for chorus (‘Universal Good’). Add to this mix the use of different dance measures—waltz, tango, polka, barcarolle, gavotte, and you get some idea of the energy and diversity of the music, matching the picaresque nature of Voltaire’s story, showing itself aptly scintillating and lyrical by turns.

The tradition for presenting this show is as an opera in concert ‘hammed up’. This was honoured last night in the Vancouver Symphony’s delightful production: it was dramatically alive every second (though I saw no credit in the programme for the director of the show). The interplay among the singers and between the singers and Maestro Tovey was delectable, no one out of character for a moment, with some splendid acting from those not delivering lines or singing. The surreptitious glances Alek Shrader and Tracey Dahl gave to Judith Forst’s backside as she sang of her missing buttock were priceless. The sight of the maestro—his baton between his teeth—doing the tango with the Old Woman as she sings of being easily assimilated, or Cunegonde stalking off the stage upon hearing she’s been killed, bespeak the high level of inventive integration of all the parts of this show. The direction provided a whole new dimension of delight to the evening.

Not that it needed it: everything held its own. Maestro Tovey led his forces with zing, bringing Bernstein’s dazzling score to life, in both its energy and lyricism. I particularly valued the clarity of the dissonance in the boisterous sections and the refined playing of the lyrical passages. The singers were wonderful, with Alek Shrader a tenderly lyrical Candide with an exquisite high register and Tracy Dahl a splendidly idiosyncratic Cunegonde. Ms. Dahl sang and acted with panache, showing in her hit aria ‘Glitter and be Gay’ superb invention and showmanship, her coloratura both an ornament of the singing and a means of characterization. Richard Suart was excellent in his roles as narrator and Pangloss, though I wish for the former he had been miked or that his narrative had shown in surtitles. Despite his good diction, I missed too much of what he said. Judith Forst was in brilliant form, singing her eccentric character with great élan. Her tango ‘I am easily assimilated’ was a tour de force, and she and Ms. Dahl showed great comic timing in their duet, ‘We Are Women’. The UBC Opera Ensemble provided a chorus of distinction, singing with precision and beauty. The individual members who played the minor roles did so persuasively in both acting and singing, though not all of them projected successfully.

The trajectory of the operetta is moving as it presents the life journey of us all from innocence, to the pain of experience, to resigned acceptance. Perhaps its truest perception is that we are creatures of emotion. Even if we were to find a rational utopia—as Candide does in El Dorado—we would be dissatisfied without our emotional life. But nor should we expect too much from it. So the ending of the work, with its air of sober resignation, rings true. Yet it is not the easiest dramatic proposition to wind things down to this position of rest.  Halfway through the last act, I felt the opera flag, especially during the Venice Gavotte, at the end of which Candide and Cunegonde discover each other.  Also, during Candide’s song of disillusionment, ‘Nothing More than this’, which seems undistinguished—both the music and Bernstein’s words—making the resolution less than fully persuasive. This was, I believe, not a consequence of the performance but of the nature of the piece itself: its unremitting shifts of scene, the constant barrage of vignettes, and the interminable commentary of the narrator finally wearing thin.  However, I thought that Maestro Tovey and his forces captured most effectively both the quiet resignation and sense of exaltation in the closing ‘Make our Garden Grow’, providing a fitting conclusion to what was a most engaging traversal overall.  In fact, I cannot praise this production too highly. Candide is a hugely enjoyable piece, and the performers did it fine justice.

© Harvey De Roo 2015