Monday, July 08, 2019

Review: All for the best

Union Avenue Opera has opened its 25th anniversary season with a splendid production of the 1988 Scottish Opera House version of Leonard Bernstein's Candide. The show was last seen locally at Opera Theatre of St. Louis the same year Union Avenue was born, and this is a worthy successor to that exemplary production in just about every respect.

The company
Photo by Dan Donovan
Candide has had a convoluted and difficult history. Even before its 1956 Broadway premiere, it had already gone through a string of lyricists (including Dorothy Parker and James Agee) and over a dozen revisions by Lillian Hellman of her original book. Various incarnations of the show continued to pop up here and there during the ensuing decades, including a 1973 Harold Prince revival that jettisoned half of the score and (after moving to the Broadway Theatre the following year) ended up over $150,000 in the red despite a string of Tony and Critics Circle awards. The 1988 revision UAO is doing was the last one Bernstein himself deemed satisfactory and, while it sags a bit in the second act, it's still effectively the composer's last word on the subject.

L-R: Jesse Darden, Thomas Gunther
Photo by Dan Donovan
Candide is based loosely on Voltaire's brief comic novel puncturing the absurdities of complacent optimism. Indoctrinated by their tutor Dr. Pangloss to believe that they live in "the best of all possible worlds," the handsome Candide and his beloved Cunegonde learn the hard way that human life, in its natural state, is (to quote Thomas Hobbes) "nasty, poor, brutish, and short."

The script puts them through a thoroughly incredible series of globetrotting adventures and (especially) coincidences that take satirical jabs at organized religion, politics, love, and nearly every other human institution. In the end, Candide and Cunegonde learn to accept the world as it is and make the best of it. In a chorale finale that contains some of Bernstein's most ecstatic music, they agree to "make our garden grow".

Brooklyn Snow
Photo by Dan Donovan
This ought to be the basis for biting parody and theatrical farce, and much of the time it is. Bernstein's final version adds some of sentimental and dramatic moments that would have the overall effect of soft-pedaling the irony if recent political events in the English-speaking world had not so forcefully illustrated the degree to which we were living in our own Panglossian fantasy world.

Great voices and generally first-rate performances dominate UAO's production, with pride of place going to the performers who carry the bulk of the story: the chorus. Under Scott Schoonover's expert direction, this remarkable 15-member ensemble takes on a bewildering variety of roles in the opera's many scenes. Some have named roles and some don't, but all of them are always thoroughly in character and singing with crystalline clarity.

There are more wonderful individual performances in the cast than I can list here, but two of the most obvious come from tenor Jesse Darden as the painfully naive Candide and soprano Brooklyn Snow as Cunegonde.

Christopher Nelson, Brooklyn Snow
Photo by Dan Donovan
Mr. Darden makes the evolution of his character completely credible and sings with authority and power. A graduate of the prestigious Indiana University Vocal Performance program, Ms. Snow displays a stunning combination of vocal athleticism and sparkling stage presence. Her performance of the celebrated coloratura aria "Glitter and be gay" got sustained and richly deserved applause. Together, they are "a practically perfect pair" (to quote Stephen Sondheim, who contributed lyrics to the Harold Prince version of Candide).

Baritone Thomas Gunther, an admirable Captain Corcoran in UAO's H.M.S. Pinafore last season, turns in another fine set of comic performances as Voltaire, Pangloss, and Candide's two traveling companions. Tenor Charlie Tingen gets plenty of laughs as Cunegonde's vain brother Maximillian. And tenor Christopher Nelson makes a striking UAO debut in multiple roles.

L-R: Gina Malone, Brooklyn Snow, Charlie Tingen,
Jesse Darden, Anthony Heinemann,
Thomas Gunther
Photo by Dan Donovan
Soprano Gina Malone (Peep-Bo in UAO's quirky Mikado in 2016) is a delight as the maid Paquette, a girl who can't say "no" in any language. Celebrated soprano Christine Brewer brings her usual finely honed instrument to the role of the cynical Old Lady, who is a bit short in the fundament department, but this cheerfully vulgar character doesn't seem a good match for her strengths.

Bernstein's score is extraordinarily rich, ranging from ingenious patter songs to massive, harmonically complex ensemble numbers. It's wonderful music and, in a work that runs three hours with intermission, there's a lot of it. Mr. Schoonover and his orchestral forces give a fine account of it, despite a few moments when the players and singers seemed not quite in synch.

Brooklyn Snow, Christine Brewer, Jesse Darden
Photo by Dan Donovan
Stage Director Annamaria Pileggi has done a fine job moving her substantial forces quickly through the opera's many scenes with minimal use of props and set pieces. Indeed, C. Otis Sweezey's set consists of little more than some platforms, a few ornate ladder-back chairs, and a set of poles on which the actors hang signs to let us know where the action is taking place. Teresa Doggett's costumes continue the theme of elegant minimalism, with most of the performers in white, Mozart-era outfits to which small items like hats or coats are added to suggest individual characters. It all keeps the show flowing smoothly and at a brisk pace.

Union Avenue Opera's Candide gets the company's new season off to a glorious start. There are two more performances this Friday and Saturday at 8 pm (July 12 and 13) at the Union Avenue Christian Church at 733 Union in the Central West End. Given the size of the crowd when I attended last Saturday, you'd be wise to get your tickets sooner rather than later.

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