A retooled “Candide” proves an enjoyable romp in belated WNO debut

Sun May 06, 2018 at 2:28 pm
By Grace Jean

Emily Pogorelc and Alek Shrader in Bernstein’s “Candide” at Washington National Opera. Photo: Scott Suchman

Washington National Opera fans have waited a long time for Leonard Bernstein’s Candide to come to town. 

The original 1956 production based upon Voltaire’s novella had a short run in New York before being closed, revised and then reopened in London. Various other versions have followed in the half-century since, attempting to deal with the show’s problematic book and libretto with equally varied degrees of success.

As part of the Kennedy Center’s Bernstein centennial tribute, WNO artistic director Francesca Zambello brought her Glimmerglass Festival production of Candide to the DC stage.

With a new libretto by John Caird that is more reflective of the French author’s prose, the operetta finally arrived at the Kennedy Center on Saturday. WNO’s plucky and enjoyable company premiere proved to be well worth the wait.

Candide follows the story of the eponymous young man who falls in love with the daughter of a baron who kicks him out of their house. Through a series of mishaps, misinformation and happenstance, Candide ventures from Europe to South America on a quest to track down his love, Cunegonde, herself a victim of war and life’s miseries. Along the way to their reunion, they encounter a series of characters depicting the best and worst of humankind.

Making an impressive WNO debut in the titular role, Alek Shrader was a most convincing Candide.  The American tenor became the production’s emotional focal point whenever he sang melancholic, introspective passages His lithe, rich voice was best showcased in those brooding soul-searching arias and duets, notably “It Must Be So” and “Candide’s Lament.”

As Candide’s object of affection Cunegonde, soprano Emily Pogorelc displayed her dazzling coloratura in “Glitter and Be Gay.” Her portrayal of a girl knowingly bedazzled and corrupted by baubles and jewels was spot-on. With a quick vibrato and soaring voice, Pogorelc was perhaps more convincing as the coy and materialistic ingenue than as Candide’s future counterpart.  

A large part of what makes Candide work is the outlandish humor and onstage gags. DC favorite Denyce Graves turned in a hilarious performance as the Old Lady with her distinctive mezzo-soprano muscling through “I Am Easily Assimilated.” 

As the tutor Pangloss and narrator Voltaire, Wynn Harmon sped the plot along through spoken word and played off the audience’s reactions. In song, however, the baritone had to contend with a handful of phasing issues with faster passages challenging his projection as well as his technique.

Bass-baritone Matthew Scollin, singing an impressively sardonic “Words, words, words” as Martin, and baritone Edward Nelson, who amped up the visual slapstick comedy as Cunegonde’s brother Maximilian, both made fine WNO debuts. 

Rounding out the cast, Frederick Ballentine turned in a superb performance as Candide’s sidekick, Cacambo, whose sweet tenor paired well with that of Shrader. Fellow WNO Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program participants Alexander McKissick (Grand Inquisitor and Governor) and Eliza Bonet (Paquette) and alumna Keriann Otano (Baroness and Vanderdendur) each embraced their characters and embodied them well in turn.

Though the setting at first seems sparse, with an iron catwalk, wooden rafters and boardwalk to help convey both maritime and shore scenery, the bulk of what makes this production work is the strong cast—dressed in 18th century period costumes by Jennifer Moeller and moving about in intricate detail with choreography by Eric Sean Fogel.

Under the baton of Nicole Paiement, the WNO Orchestra played with spirit and meticulous musicality. Those attributes were echoed in kind by the chorus and soloists onstage – and collectively they turned in strong full-cast performances across the board, especially in the diabolical “Auto-da-fe” and the hopeful “Make Our Garden Grow.” Opening night jitters – a few tempo bobbles between orchestra and singers; a bit of unevenness and flagging energy levels in the beginning of Act II—were the only debits marring an otherwise polished production. 

Candide continues through May 26. kennedy-center.org; 202-467-4600

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