A specter haunts every production of Candide. When the original version premiered, in 1956, critics disliked it. Lillian Helman's lyrics were off-putting, and Leonard Bernstein's soaring score couldn't compensate. Eighteen years and many collaborators later, the revived operetta finally won over audiences. But a passion project like Candide is never really "done." The show evolves, and each director must decide which incarnation to bring to life.
The Opera Theater of Pittsburgh has taken a very traditional route, and if you've never seen Candide, this Summer Fest production is a great first taste. The show offers nothing exceptional: The set is simple and static, the dancing is minimal and the singers are often hard to hear. But director Scott Wise plays up the slapstick, and Kenneth Chy's costumes are works of art. No frills, but no misguided choices, either. It may not be the best of all possible worlds, but it's a decent one, anyway.
Based on Voltaire's satiric novella, Candide follows several dippy aristocrats who believe the universe is perfect as is. They endure an index of tragedies, from bondage to shipwrecks, and their sublime vision blurs. They roam from continent to continent, witnessing war and sex slavery, and nearly every character dies at least once.
The trouble with Candide, as both novel and play, is that the story isn't "ha-ha" funny. The novel is a bitter polemic about the cruelty of men, and the potshots at priests, Jews and Moors don't update well. As a show, Candide is stuck between musical comedy and political opera, a loquacious tour of the Age of Reason with recurring sex jokes. Monty Python this is not.
Yet the beauty of Candide is Bernstein's music, and the opportunity for singers to really sing. "Glitter and Be Gay" is the soprano's ultimate showcase, and as Cunégonde, Abigail Dueppen seems to relish every belted high note. As Candide, Daniel Teadt is both a magnificent singer and an entertaining clown. The hammy and vivacious standout is James FitzGerald, who plays both narrator and the optimistic philosopher Dr. Pangloss.
As Voltaire himself put it: "Froth at the top, dregs at the bottom, the middle excellent."