Monday, September 26, 2011

The best of all possible worlds

It was another operatic weekend for your faithful correspondent, concluding with a delightful production of Mr. Bernstein's Candide presented by coópera: Project Opera of Manhattan and The Players Foundation. This was the second of two performances, which is unfortunate. The production deserves a wider audience.

Candide is based on Mr. Voltaire's 1759-ish novella of the same name, mocking some of the ridiculously optimistic philosophers of the Enlightenment and their naive amazement at human tragedy and the evil that man does to man. How could a benign God, ruler of the best of all possible worlds, allow such things to happen? One often hears the same question today. Several versions of Candide have been produced since its premiere as a musical in 1956 with a book by Lillian Hellman. We saw the 1974 Hal Prince revival (the "Chelsea Version", for the theater where it premiered) with a rewritten book by Hugh Wheeler and lyrics by lots of folks.

Candide, illegitimate nephew of the Baron of Something Unpronounceable, has been raised and educated with the Baron's children, the most privileged children in the land. He and his lovely young cousin Cunegonde fall madly in love with one another, which causes Candide's expulsion from the family because of his low birth. The family that kicked him out are themselves either killed or kidnapped by raiding militia, and Candide and Cunegonde both face a series of trials and misadventures (including being reunited and separated again at least, oh, forty times) that test their faith in the optimistic worldview they've been taught. In the end, when he is reunited for the last time with Cunegonde, Candide adopts a more mature worldview ("Make our garden grow") not unlike the guidance Garrison Keiller gives to his radio listeners: "Be well, do good work, and keep in touch!"

Meagan Amelia Brus, Monica Hershenson Thuris,
Evan McCormack
This production was a success for me in very many ways. The bare stage--actually a platform in front of the actual stage, which held the orchestra, nobly led by Jorge Parodi--was transformed from one scene to the next by the placement of props, Tyler Learned's skillful lighting, and the imagination of the performers. I'm not as intimately acquainted with Candide as I am with, say, Die Zauberflöte, so I will give stage director John Martello (who also sang tutor Dr. Pangloss, Voltaire, and the Governor of Montevideo) credit for much of the cleverness. Even minor characters showed signs of being well thought out and not bland ensemble members. (I met the husband of one of the sheep in the El Dorado scene, and was challenged to find a way to include in this review my comment to him that the sheep were "suitably ovine".)

I haven't a single complaint about the singers. Candide himself was sung and acted by Evan McCormack. Young Mr. McCormack has the wan, naive look of an innocent and a light, lyric sound. Poor young Candide endures many trials and struggles to understand the world, and we saw the lad's incomprehension and innocence clearly. We knew that, even though he adopts a more mature outlook, he will surely relapse into optimism from time to time. Cunegonde was beautifully sung by Rosa Betancourt, a lovely young soprano with lots of -inas and -ettas in her credits. "Glitter and be gay", Cunegonde's showpiece aria, was cleverly staged, as Cunegonde grows tipsy sipping champagne and toying with the jewels in her box. I have to wonder whether overdoing the drunk shtick impaired some of the more taxing moments in the aria, however.

As the Old Woman, mezzo Laura Virella was the greatest standout of this show for me. She gave us singing that was beautiful and acting that was just histrionic enough. Her comic timing was the best of the evening. The Old Woman must be a tremendously rewarding character to play. The YouTube clips one finds of "Easily Assimilated", the Old Woman's song, often show veterans of musical theater or opera having a wonderful time hamming it up. It was clear Miss Virella was having tremendous fun.

I can not omit the singing and acting of Sophia Benedetti as Paquette, the tramp flamboyant servant girl of the Baron, or Jorell Williams, the flamboyant son of the Baron. Both were a delight to see and hear. I think the straight men, if such an animal exists in an opera audience, must have especially enjoyed Ms. Benedetti's performance as Paquette.

The entire ensemble was comprised of fine young singers, most of whom assumed several characters during the course of the evening.  I hope to see more productions by coópera: POM, and more from these young singers.


Anonymous said...

Indeed a wonderful performance. Young singers at their best!!!

Anonymous said...

Kudos for Ms. Virella!!!