Union Avenue Opera opens its Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Season with a company debut of Leonard Bernstein’s hilarious and irreverent Candide, which the company is proud to present as part of the national “Leonard Bernstein at 100 Celebration” that wraps up this summer.
Sparkling with wit and humor, Candide is part opera, part musical and wholly irreverent, drawing on everything from European operetta to Latin American dance rhythms. Bernstein’s score abounds with spectacular music, including a famous overture, the soprano showpiece “Glitter and Be Gay,” and the soaring finale, “Make Our Garden Grow.”
Voltaire’s philosophical spoof becomes a brilliant and breathless operetta that bumbles about from the Old World to the New and back again. Young Candide’s tutor told him that this was “the best of all possible worlds” and through war, plague, earthquake, shipwreck and the Spanish Inquisition, he steadfastly believed it.
Leonard Bernstein often said: "Every author spends his entire life writing the same book." The same could apply to composers. Probing the existential questions that haunt us was a hallmark of Bernstein both as a person and composer. He was not satisfied unless he was immersed in major issues, upending and questioning the status quo, often with irreverence and insouciance. That was what made Bernstein the larger-than-life character he was and imbued his music with immense depth.
How many people would even consider turning Voltaire's satirical novella from 1759, Candide, into musical theater, let alone jump at the opportunity?
Playwright Lillian Hellman approached Bernstein in 1953 with the concept. They delighted in the idea of drawing parallels between Voltaire's satirical portrayal of the Catholic Church's blatant hypocrisy and violence and the inquisition-like tactics then being implemented by the U.S. government under the House of Representatives' House Un-American Activities Committee. Voltaire's charges against society in the 1750s — puritanical snobbery, phony moralism, inquisitional attacks on the individual — all rang true for Hellman and Bernstein in the 1950s. They set out with zeal to create a show that would capture a contemporary Voltaire viewpoint.
The show fell victim to its own weighty agenda and its authors' cleverness. Candide may be the most labored over Broadway show in history, enduring many incarnations since it opened in 1956. But there can be no doubt about the brilliance of Bernstein's score, which he conceived as a love note to European music. Few composers could construct a score where European dance forms like the gavotte, waltz and polka are interwoven seamlessly with bel canto arias, Gilbert and Sullivan-style comedy, grand opera and Bernstein's own "Jewish tango."
If you’re looking for an evening of utter theatrical joy, then look no further than Union Avenue Opera’s production of Candide. Performed in English with projected English supertitles July 5, 6, 12, and 13 at 8 p.m.