Glimmerglass Festival's production of 'Candide'

With its sprawling nature and unorthodox subject, Bernstein’s Candide has a reputation as a flawed work, but it certainly doesn’t seem so in Francesca Zambello’s sprightly new production. It helps that the work’s history of revisions led to John Caird’s 1999 rewrite of Hugh Wheeler’s book for the Royal National Theatre, a version that now arguably stands as the best of all possible Candides. By strengthening ties to Voltaire, the book brings into sharper focus the heady subject matter of this unique musical (operetta, really): his mockery through a series of catastrophic events — wars, disease, earthquakes, you name it — of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s philosophy of optimism.

It’s true that Candide does lack a neat, overarching dramatic shape. The catastrophes begin almost immediately and precipitate seemingly random travels to many different places. But as Glimmerglass shows, the performing version helps facilitate the transition between numbers of Bernstein’s brilliant score.

Moreover, Zambello strives to give each venue a character of its own. Her outlandish treatment of the El Dorado scene, which seems to draw inspiration both from Las Vegas and from Franco Zeffirelli’s Turandot for the Met, makes that scene stand out and helps give overall shape to Act 2. And she is never at a loss to illustrate humorously the pronouncements of the narrator, which form much of the spoken text. A couple of miscalculations, such as making a prissy dandy of the Governor, hardly detract.

There is no innovative concept here. The set (by James Noone) and costumes (by Jennifer Moeller) place the action in the 18th century, where it belongs. The set, consisting mainly of wood, bears a vague resemblance to the insides of a ship, an apt metaphor given all the travel involved. Andrew Stenson’s sweet tenor nicely projects Candide’s naïveté, and Kathryn Lewek’s Cunegonde makes up in ebullience and spot-on high notes what she lacks in vocal purity. David Garrison brings the right pseudo-knowledgeable air to the Narrator/Dr Pangloss, Matthew Scollin sings strongly as the overly pessimistic Martin, and Marietta Simpson’s Old Lady has ample character. The score glitters gaily under Joseph Colaneri’s persuasive leadership.

‘Candide’ is a co-production with Opéra National de Bordeaux and Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse. Glimmerglass Festival runs to August 23,

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