Voice of Voltaire carries in 'Candide'

March 14, 1995|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,Special to The Sun

Although it was hardly the best of all possible "Candide" productions, last weekend's Peabody Opera Theatre mounting of Leonard Bernstein's 1956 opera registered in the two areas that count most: His wonderful score came across briskly, and the libretto based on Voltaire's 18th century novella retained its satirical sting.

Just as the titular hero of this opera undergoes many shifts in fortune and locale as he makes his way through life, the opera itself has led many lives since its short-lived debut production. Extensive tinkering with the book, and conceptual arguments as to whether it was more an opera or musical comedy, meant that subsequent revivals all made their claims and hoped to woo audiences to their interpretive point of view.

When Washington's Arena Stage did "Candide" in 1983 as an all-stops-out musical comedy -- complete with trap doors and elaborate set changes -- it became a carnival-like spectacle about human folly. When the Baltimore Opera Company did it in 1984 as a light-hearted operetta, the presence of Jean Stapleton as the Old Lady lent it automatic sitcom appeal.

Now the Peabody has weighed in with an operatic approach, as you'd expect under the music school's proscenium arch. In orchestral terms, this production mostly worked. Music director Hajime Teri Murai treated the celebrated overture with the brassy assertion it deserves, even if his take-charge reading rushed the overture's more lyrical moments. And the orchestra remained confident throughout the nearly three-hour evening.

Riding on top of that alternately joyful and melancholic music were two singers more than up to the demands. T. Norwood Robinson, who portrayed Candide on the night of review in this double-cast production, embodied the determined optimism that sees the young man through misadventures including volcanic eruption, shipwreck, the Spanish Inquisition and worse.

Mr. Robinson's tender singing made him particularly affecting in the plaintive "It Must Be So." Through every twist of fate in the convoluted story line -- indeed, the expressions "meanwhile" and "That's a long story" introduce many scenes -- Candide hangs on and is rewarded by being reunited with the love of his life, Cunegonde.

Theresa Sweet made Cunegonde a young woman worth pursuing through the rubble of war. Ms. Sweet's tour-de-force escalating trills and comic acting in "Glitter and Be Gay" won her a well-deserved ovation.

No less busy on stage was Jeffrey Shaman, cast in several roles including Voltaire as a scene-setting narrator and Dr. Pangloss, the know-it-all academic who fills Candide's head with his notions that, dire events to the contrary, everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds. Mr. Shaman is a deft comic actor, but in terms of casting he seemed little older than his pupil. This detracts from their master/pupil exchanges.

Where the large cast disappointed was in not adequately projecting across the abyss that is the orchestra pit. Too many of the snappy lines in this English-language opera did not quite reach our ears, and the production thus didn't fully connect emotionally.

Also disappointing was the set design, which combined low-tech, hand-held stage curtains with more high-tech photographic images flashed on three overhead screens.

The shifting configurations of the curtains usually worked, but sometimes impeded choreographic flow. While the backing slide show did help indicate scene changes, the images themselves often were difficult to make out. And the deliberately bland costuming seemed an odd choice for so colorful an opera.

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