I’ve been familiar with Voltaire’s satirical novella since I was a teenager and have reread it many times but I’d not seen the Bernstein operetta/musical version until last night when it opened at Toronto Operetta Theatre with, I think, the original Lillian Hellman 1956 book though a later reduced orchestration (I’m guessing on that). I was very curious because it’s not obvious how one might turn Voltaire’s sequence of drily narrated, utterly absurd scenes into drama. The answer turns out to be to insert the author as a spoken word narrator linking scenes and play it straight though the two mile high cliffs and sheep get lost in the wash. Fair enough. It works pretty well. The whole thing is reasonably true to the spirit of the original though in places, especially in the musical number, it’s definitely tailored to a 1950s Broadway sensibility.
Guillermo Silva-Martin’s production is somewhere between realistic and abstract. The characters wear anytime/anywhere outfits over which scene specific elements are sometimes placed. For example there are monks and inquisitors and so on in the Lisbon scene and Carnival outfits for Venice. Props are kept to a minimum and in usual TOT style the cast act as stage hands. There’s no curtain at the Jane Mallet so it’s a good option and it keeps things moving along at a decent pace. There are some deft touches. I thought the El Dorado scene was well handled by treating it as a kind of dream/dance sequence. No sheep though! The ending was well executed with the cast in Venetian Carnival wear one by one dropping their finery to reveal the “everyman” outfits. It was a bit like a less lethal version of the end of Carsen’s Dialogues of the Carmelites. The three “murders” that Candide commits were appropriately undramatic. A nice touch, very much in the spirit of the author. I doubt that there is any really good way of staging scenes like the auto da fe and the battle between the Bulgars and the Avars but it was done here with energy and a certain panache that worked well enough.
The “quieter” scenes rely for much of their effectiveness on the individual actor/singers and there was a lot to like. Nicholas Borg impressed as Voltaire/Pangloss/Martin. He characterised well and delivered Voltaire’s lines suitably drily. His singing was about the clearest of the night too. This does seem to be a piece where the words sometimes get lost in the whirl which is unfortunate but probably inevitable. Tonatiuh Abrego, on debut with TOT, was a convincing Candide. He had, I think, the best voice on offer though not a whole lot to do with it. I could easily see him as the romantic lead in a German operetta that works the tenor a bit harder. Vania Chan was an obvious choice for Cunegonde, if only for Glitter and be gay. It was a typical Chan performance. Her light, bright soprano and agile coloratura worked really well in the solo numbers but tended to disappear a bit in the more heavily orchestrated ensembles. As ever, she moved wonderfully well. Elizabeth Beeler sang the Old Woman, affecting some sort of Eastern European accent. It’s probably the sort of thing that happens when one has only one buttock. It was a pretty broad performance but it deservedly got the most laughs. There are umpteen smaller roles which were taken by members of the sixteen strong chorus. As a group they were young, lively and musical doing everything from “exotic dance” to hitting each other over the head with sticks, as well as moving the furniture!
Derek Bate conducted a thirteen piece band. I’m told the arrangement was one done for a 1970s Broadway revival. To my ears it sounded brass and percussion heavy and much closer to a 1950s Broadway/Jazz sound than I was expecting in something billed as an operetta. This maybe because with only one player on each string part the balance becomes less “symphonic”. Bate also went for drama and razz which emphasized the noisier instruments even more. That’s probably fair enough, though at times hard on the singers.
So, all in all, a pretty well conceived and executed Candide that was worth braving an Arctic evening to see. Candide continues at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts until January 7th.
Photo credits: Gary Beechey