Few shows so eloquently straddle the boundary between musical and operetta as “Candide,” Leonard Bernstein’s famed adaptation of Voltaire’s novel. This enigmatic work of theatre was first presented on Broadway before moving to opera houses, in which it has garnered great acclaim. Initially conceived by Bernstein and Lillian Hellman as a play with incidental music meant to satirize the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee, the work’s lyrics have since been modified by Stephen Sondheim, John LaTouche, Dorothy Parker and Richard Wilbur.
Last weekend, “Candide” was performed by the University Opera Theatre and the University Symphony Orchestra at the Power Center. It was an enthralling journey through the life of Candide on his lengthy quest to marry Cunégonde. It was also a biting satire on the failures of organized religion, philosophy, war, money and socioeconomic class structure. Despite its antiquated setting, the work manages to remain frighteningly relevant. One can hear the echoes of modern political pessimism in the work’s criticism of 17th and 18th century aristocratic power structures, the cries of anti-party rhetoric reflected in the anti-government libretto.
After a quick introduction to the optimism that so consumed the philosophers of Voltaire’s day, the operetta oscillates between violence and lucky escape.
To those unfamiliar with the book, the dark humor of this unrealistic plot can be hard to laugh at. Candide and his childhood friends travel all over the world, finding each other in the most unexpected of places and avoiding death by the narrowest of means. I found myself struggling to laugh with some members of the audience at the first scene of mass casualty before I, too, understood the unrealistic humor of this perpetual death and violence.
In the end, as the pace of the story slowed, the emotional poignancy began to overtake the dark humor. The final scene, in which Candide and Cunégonde agree to marry and to plant a garden together, was beautifully complex and emotionally ambiguous. “Life is neither good nor bad,” the choir sings. “Life is life, and all we know.”
After this lengthy journey of faulty belief systems and strikingly immoral systems of cultural morality, the realist, almost nihilist simplicity of this resolution was astounding. The audience sat with rapt attention as Candide and Cunégonde exchanged promises to “do the best” they know in cultivating their garden and living a simple, agrarian life.
The simple ingenuity of the set contributed both to the fleeting absurdity of the plot and the poignant simplicity of the resolution. The entire operetta took place in front of a giant blackboard upon which Candide’s journey was illustrated in chalk. Smaller wheelable blackboards and simple wooden tables formed the changing scenery throughout the production while tablet-sized handheld blackboards formed the props. These handheld blackboards frequently contributed to the humor with characters on stage reacting in fright to blackboards with “GUN” written on them. In the end, as Candide and Cunégonde decide to pursue a simple lifestyle, the blackboard in the back of the stage was erased and the tabletops were removed to uncover small, lush gardens.
The cast was quite impressive. They demonstrated the ease at which they sing English-language opera, and I found myself particularly impressed with the expressive singing of Candide and the colatura abilities of Cunégonde.
With great choreography and significant dialogue, I began to question whether this was not better classified as a musical than an operetta. Bernstein’s career was based on the blending of genres: from the harmonic dissonance and operatic treatment of “West Side Story” to the popular influences in much of his concert music. And this work was no exception, with Bernstein jumping from dissonant incidental music to operatic arias and Broadway-esque slow musical numbers.
I am always skeptical of movies and plays based on famous novels. To this end, I will admit that I was incredibly skeptical of Bernstein’s decision to adapt Voltaire’s novel. It would be hard, I thought, for the operetta to not be overshadowed by this incredibly influential novel. And though the overture is a staple of the American-composed concert repertoire, I had assumed that there was a reason I was unfamiliar with the operetta.
Yet despite my skepticism, the operetta lived up to the famed book after which it is based. Much like the book, it is a compelling criticism of wealth, power, religion and other constructs of cultural morality. And nothing felt more appropriate than the final words of the play, when Voltaire asks the audience if they have “Any questions?” For what is “Candide” if not a call for the audience to question, a proto-Nietzschean condemnation of current belief systems in favor of a new belief system?