Candide

1994 Chicago Lyric Opera Production
Selected Writings

Review by John von Rhein in Opera News, March 18, 1995

With tumbling clowns and pink sheep frolicking on stage, singers fearlessly leaping between set pieces or poised precariously above the heads of the audience, you'd have thought someone had transform the Lyric Opera of Chicago into a cross between a three-ring circus and a Broadway show-palace.  Indeed, someone had.  Broadway mogul Harold Prince's so-called "opera house version" of Leonard Bernstein's Candide had its Lyric premiere November 26, with all its manic, impudent fun intact.

It was instructive to hear Candide in an opera house, where the composer always felt his musical adaptation of Voltaire belonged.  A few minor tucks and changes actually improved the show over the previous incarnation that had opened in 1982 at the New York City Opera.  Nice, too, to hear Bernstein's music sung by real, operatically trained voices, as opposed to Broadway-style non-voices.  The fun began with commedia dell'arte figures unfurling banners and rolling in chorister-laden wagons during the famous overture — and barely paused for breath over the next two and a half hours.

Prince and his collaborators — choreographer Patricia Birch, set designer Clarke Dunham, costume designer Judith Anne Dolan, and lighting designer Ken Billington — treated the story as a picaresque sideshow guided by a carnival barker, Dr. Voltaire (Timothy Nolen, both amused and amusing, appearing in multiple roles as Dr. Pangloss, the Governor, and others).  At times they even made various audience members accomplices in mischief — shades of their famous "environmental" production in 1973 at New York's Chelsea Arts Center, where the concept originated before moving on to Broadway success.

Critical pedants will, I suppose, howl because Prince deleted some 20 minutes of (uninteresting) music, reassigned and shifted the order of various musical numbers, and so forth.  But that's their problem.  Bernstein approved the opera house version at the time of its first performance and he surely would have been delighted by the enthusiasm with which the Lyric audience greeted Prince's circusy romp.  Indeed, it seemed a pity Bernstein died too soon to hear Elizabeth Futral, surely the best-sung Cunegonde since Barbara Cook created the role of the ravishing, and ravished, heroine.  Her voice glittered and was full of gaiety in the soprano's big show-stopper aria.  Barry Banks, who was making his US opera debut as Candide, proved the very model of a boyish innocent, convincing right down to his British accent.  His tenor was sweet and musically deployed but its smallish size prevented it from projecting well in the 3,500-seat theater.

Phyllis Pancella was an absolute hoot as the posteriorly challenged Old Lady, complete with outrageous Russian-Yiddish accent, camping and vamping her way through her mock-Spanish tango, "I Am Easily Assimilated".  Deborah Darr was the tarty Paquette, Dale Travis the narcissistic Maximilian.  The stage was filled with such veteran scene-stealers as James Billings, Zale Kessler, and Philip Kraus playing various royal personages, soldiers, zealots, and cutthroats.  Conductor George Manahan kept things perking along in the pit, setting buoyant tempos for the patter numbers while steering a good orchestra through Bernstein's tricky shifts of rhythm and meter.  Those who believe Bernstein never wrote any finer music for the theater than Candide had their opinion reinforced.

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