Candide by Leonard Bernstein: Toronto Operetta Theatre at St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts. Runs Dec. 28 – Jan. 7. For more information, visit: www.torontooperetta.com
Technically speaking, Leonard Bernstein’s centenary year begins at midnight Sunday night, but by then Toronto Operetta Theatre will be well ahead of the pack of homage-payers, after three performances of Bernstein’s idiosyncratic work of genius, Candide. In the midst of this punishing cold snap, Guillermo Silva-Marin provided a welcome warm-up to the yearlong celebrations with an energetic rendition of this delightful but problematic comic operetta.
Something like an infant who almost dies in childbirth and then improbably lives to a ripe age, Candide is still going strong, despite needing emergency interventions by teams of brilliant book writers (including Lillian Hellman) directors, (the first being the legendary Tyrone Guthrie) lyricists (as luminary as Dorothy Parker and Stephen Sondheim) and orchestrators since its debut in 1956. There are no fewer than six versions, five of which are still licensed for performance. What’s kept Candide alive is the powerful musical DNA, which has persisted through its many expansions and contractions, and is still especially evident in its rousing Overture, and the bitingly ironic lyrics that result in a collection of show-stopping numbers that can be career-making making star turns. (The legendary Barbara Cook, who sang at Koerner Hall when she was over 80, was launched on a stratospheric path when she created the role of Cunegonde in 1956.)
The updated 2013 version that TOT is presenting showcases several fine performers who give many of these musical moments their due. Tonatiuh Abrego is the ideal Candide, handsome, with a secure stage presence, and an ability to make the character touchingly innocent, tender, and ultimately dignified. Abrego modulated his lovely tenor to make Candide’s reflective moments, especially “It Must Be So”, genuinely moving in the midst of the prevailing mood of cynicism and corruption. Elizabeth Beeler, as the world-weary Old Lady who has the anatomical distinction of possessing only one buttock, has the scene-stealing timing of Carol Burnett combined with a strong, occasionally ballsy soprano and a delicious Polish accent. As the companion and protector of the comely ingénue Cunegonde, Beeler literally towers over the petite Vania Chan, giving them a comical “Mutt and Jeff” quality. Cunegonde, who survives at the pleasure of the men she encounters, has the most memorable aria of the show, “Glitter and Be Gay”, with four high E-flats. Chan, (who commented in an e-interview that this music is a joy to sing) hit the mark each time, bringing a coquettish glee to the part, more toddler than temptress. Cian Horrobin embodied the manipulative Governor gymnastically, hitting high notes while leaping gracefully backwards off a trunk.
In an interview before opening night, stage director Guillermo Silva-Martin, who has staged Candide several times, described himself as “minimalist at heart,” and this approach serves the work exceptionally well. On a stage of empty risers with minimal props carried on and off, Candide’s exaggerated vicissitudes can unfold without the distraction of excessive stage business. Voltaire, the author of the book on which Candide is based, created polemical caricatures and episodes to skewer the notion of simplistic optimism that was doing the rounds during his lifetime, (and is making a comeback now) heaping multiple outlandish misfortunes on the dramatis personae to make his point. When Candide is too lavishly detailed or elaborately choreographed, the simplistic thinking that Voltaire wants to expose gets lost.
In some scenes, however, Bernstein’s warm heart overrides Voltaire’s cool intellect, resulting in moments that are unexpectedly moving instead of thought-provoking. The confrontation with the Inquisition, even amidst the witty lyrics of Auto-De-Fe, is chilling and cautionary. And the final whole-company Chorus, Make Our Garden Grow, which was richly sung by TOT’s chorus, has a comforting quality that departs from Voltaire’s flat realism.
It would be pedantry on my part to wish away this inspiring anthem. Even so, I do wish that Bernstein had lived long enough to give Candide at least one more spin. The sexual hypocrisy, violation and disease that affords a lot of Candide’s humour is not only dated in a #MeToo world, it is fast becoming unacceptable. We’ll never know, of course, what the next iteration would be like, but I speculate that it would have contained more of Voltaire’s bitter irony and less high-spirited comedy.
Ludwig van Toronto