Story: Candide, illegitimate cousin to the royal family of Baron Thunder-Ten-Tronck in Westphalia, studies under the tutelage of eminent philosopher Dr. Pangloss, whose claim to fame is the dictum that his students live in “the best of all possible worlds.” He "teaches" happiness to Candide and the baron’s children, Maximillian and Cunegonde, as well as the servant girl, Paquette.
When Candide professes his love for Cunegonde, her father banishes his illegitimate nephew from the baron’s estate. Candide is conscripted into the Bulgar army and later learns that the army has killed the baron’s entire family. Devastated, he later ends up in Portugal, where he learns that Pangloss isn’t dead after all but rather stricken with syphilis he contracted from Paquette.
Pangloss and Candide are summoned by the Spanish Inquisition, with Pangloss condemned to hang and Candide to be flogged. Candide escapes to Paris, where he is reunited with Cunegonde, who isn’t dead after all but now is the kept woman of both the Archbishop of Paris and wealthy Jewish merchant Don Issachar.
After fatally stabbing both men, Candide escapes to the New World along with Cunegonde, aided by her chaperone, The Old Woman. They are taken by Jesuits to Uruguay, where Maximillian turns up disguised as a slave girl, the same fate that has befallen Paquette. The governor there loves Maximillian until he learns that she is a he, and then he falls in love with Cunegonde.
Candide’s misadventures later take him into the jungle as well as to a land of gold inhabited by a peaceful people. He bids them farewell in his quest to once again find Cunegonde, returning to Europe and eventually to Venice, where he comes into contact with Cunegonde and The Old Lady, now working in a casino, and Maximillian, the prefect of the Venetian police.
Through all of his ordeals and travails, Candide perseveres, although his belief in Pangloss’ blindly optimistic philosophy wanes. He determines to make the best of what life he has in the company of the woman he loves, Cunegonde.
Highlights: Union Avenue Opera celebrates a pair of milestones, its own 25th anniversary as well as the centennial of composer Leonard Bernstein’s birth, with an amusing, stylish and handsomely mounted production of Bernstein’s comic operetta masterpiece, Candide.
Other Info: Based on the 1759 novella of the same name by French writer and provocateur Voltaire, Bernstein’s Candide has undergone many revisions since its 1956 debut, which featured a libretto by Lillian Hellman and lyrics primarily by Richard Wilbur to accompany Bernstein’s score.
Dorothy Parker, Stephen Sondheim, John Latouche, John Mauceri and Bernstein himself contributed lyrics at one time or another as the operetta Candide continued to evolve, with a new book by Hugh Wheeler commissioned by Broadway director Harold Prince.
Finally, in 1988 Bernstein collaborated with Mauceri, director of the Scottish Opera, for what the composer said would be his final version of Candide. That rendition, which received its world premiere in Glasgow in 1988, is the one being performed by Union Avenue Opera in its debut Candide production.
And what a production it is. UAO founder Scott Schoonover is at the top of his game conducting his spirited orchestra, which wittily interprets Bernstein’s upbeat, energizing score. Director Annamaria Pileggi makes an impressive opera debut, facilitating a light, breezy and fun presentation which belies its three hours of running time, matching her performers’ deliveries to the show's lively music.
Christine Brewer returns to the UAO stage in her role debut as The Old Lady, although this “elderly woman” can still impress with her distinguished soprano as well as humorously depicting Cunegonde’s opportunistic chaperone, one with a most unfortunate if amusing physical affliction.
Tenor Jesse Darden makes a prestigious UAO debut as the title character, shaping the naive young man’s thoughts and emotions with well-wrought singing. He’s complemented by Brooklyn Snow, whose persuasive soprano adds luster to numbers such as Glitter and Be Gay and the humorous I Am Easily Assimilated in another UAO debut performance.
Veteran UAO singer Gina Malone excels as the always available Paquette and Charlie Tingen, another UAO debut player, brings out the comic buffoonery in Maximillian. Thomas Gunther succeeds in the supporting roles of Voltaire as the show’s narrator, the pompous if persistent Dr. Pangloss, Candide’s pessimistic pal Martin and the title character’s eventual servant Cacambo.
The engaging supporting cast also includes Christopher Nelson as the lusting Archbishop of Paris as well as the thick-headed Governor of Buenos Aires, Graham Emmons as the lecherous Don Issachar and Greg Johnston as the ill-tempered Baron of Thunder-Ten-Tronck.
In keeping with Voltaire’s slapstick satire of European (particularly Roman Catholic) mores of the 18th century, especially his lampooning of German polymath and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, C. Otis Sweezey’s scenic design is a clever compilation of compass points, with a bizarre beach ball of a globe courtesy of props master Kate Slovinski. It’s annoying, though, that the second act deletes signposts of places visited in Act One.
Michael Sullivan’s lighting carefully accentuates the comic proceedings, as do the meticulous if humorous wardrobes fashioned by costume designer Teresa Doggett.
Union Avenue Opera’s rendition of the Scottish Opera version of Candide is a terrific combination of silly comedy, ridiculous coincidences and biting satire, all guided by Bernstein’s cheerful and invigorating music. It's a fitting tribute to cap off the American composer’s centennial celebration.
Company: Union Avenue Opera
Venue: Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 North Union Blvd.
Dates: July 12, 13
Tickets: $32 to $55; contact 361-2881 or unionavenueopera.org
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Dan Donovan