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Candide; Susannah

 

By Myron Meisel

 

Almost perfectly imperfect: Leonard Bernstein’s Candide

 

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Robin Buck, left, Zeffin Quinn Hollis, Todd Strange, Suzan Hanson in Long Beach Opera’s Candide (photo by Keith Ian Polakoff).

 

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True to its theme, there will never be “the best of all possible” Candides. Leonard Bernstein’s almost perfectly imperfect musical theater piece straddles the realms of Broadway and the opera, not unlike Porgy and Bess (if “The Gershwins’ (sic)” tarted version hasn’t scotched its operatic identity for the foreseeable future). A signal failure in its original 1956 run, Candide returned in 1973 as a smash hit under Harold Prince’s tutelage and remained popular ever since.

 

As the product of sixty years of continual revision, two book adapters (Lillian Hellman, then supplanted entirely by Hugh Wheeler), at least five credited lyricists in addition to Richard Wilbur’s original work, not to mention Bernstein’s repeated tinkering with his own score, no one undertakes a production without having their own whack at it. Long Beach Opera’s present incarnation proceeds from the Royal National Theatre version of 1999 by John Caird, and director David Schweizer unsurprisingly makes further cuts to complement a lean staging that for all its energetic swiftness, and Bernstein’s irresistible musical pulse, still cannot quite overcome the work’s discursive resistance to momentum.

 

Voltaire’s 1757 satire married Swiftian fanciful disgust to a Hobbesian world-view, while applying that peculiarly affectless French irony founded on the primacy of logic, whether rational or not (in short: the Enlightenment), taking account of the horrors of human society in a jaundiced, jaunty mode. Hellman, who conceived the project in substantial measure as a jibe at Red Scare persecutions, fired the imagination of Bernstein, who envisioned the operetta potential in the material. Plundering encyclopedically from European dance rhythms and meters, Bernstein’s fecund score still always manages to sound exactly like himself, and the songs, while hardly detachable from the scenario as pop tunes, in context boast an immortal freshness.

 

Of course, while Bernstein was sympathetically attuned to the political ramifications of the themes, in the end Candide plays just as aptly as a critique of the persistent sunniness of the American musical (whether Broadway or Hollywood) ostensibly demanded by audiences. Even the innate pessimism of Candide‘s misanthropy, however, cannot escape the inevitably optimistic resolution required by Bernstein’s own fervor for the redemptive tonic of his art.

 

LBO’s Candide, taken as a whole, is an effective, engaging rendition, strongly voiced by singers who can act and comprise a cohesive ensemble. Schweizer starts somewhat shakily, with the device of a first rehearsal by the troupe in which the Voltaire/Dr. Pangloss figure (Robin Buck) begins as a surrogate director who chooses in the moment which player to cast in which role, with everyone appearing furiously on book as if sussing out the parts for the first time. The gimmick is both slightly clever and slightly lame, but as it gives way to a confident polish, the show become increasingly cogent, vocally always doing honorable service to the text.

 

This is a stripped-down, budget-savvy mounting, given what visual panache it has largely through the ministrations of Sean Cawelti and his Rogue Artists team, contriving masks, props and puppet effects that while essentially simple emerge highly expressive. Schweizer emphasizes coherence and speed, requiring the players to be consistently over-busy, paces which they execute with high spirits and a consistent tone.

 

The compact orchestra of 14 musicians, placed behind the action and sometimes muffled by a white curtain on which shadow images play, tends towards a thinness of sound (especially compared to the rich concert version of the “Overture”) that does not overwhelm the dimensions of the sparse production, though one could have wished for a stronger punch of the score’s inherent sparkle. On the other hand, the reduced forces, while comprised of modern instruments, do reflect the more modest ensembles redolent of the story’s period.

 

Still, the marvelous ensemble glitters gaily in every number, and Schweizer masterfully affords them ideal context in which to convey the gorgeous melodies and the cherry-picked acerbic lyrics. Todd Strange makes for a credible Candide, a challenging task that must be approached without a hint of coyness or commentary. Jamie Chamberlin’s Cunegonde, inescapably laboring in the shade of Barbara Cook’s original cast recording, distinctively attacks the role with a mock sensuality that suggests the buoyantly compromised nature of her much-abused survivor. In a variety of multiple and indelible roles, company veterans such as Suzan Hanson, Roberto Prelas Gomez and Danielle Marcelle Bond provide lustily inventive support, while newcomer Zeffin Quinn Hollis, with his loony eyes and original timing, scores in several hilarious cameos.

 

 

Pasadena Opera’s revival of Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah

 

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Soprano Chelsea Basler in Susannah (photo by Brian Biery).

 

It was curiously revealing to have encountered Carlisle Floyd’s opera Susannah the prior weekend, performed twice by a new outfit, The Pasadena Opera, at A Noise Within. Both Susannah and Candide premiered the same year (1956), to significantly different receptions. Susannah, reviewed by classical music critics, won their award for Best New Opera, while Candide was assessed by theater critics more by Broadway musical standards. Both operas can be readily interpreted as critiques of the prevailing anti-Communist hysteria, handmaidens to films like Johnny Guitar.

 

The less inspired if still talented Floyd was nevertheless onto something: attempting to make an innovative opera in American terms consistent with the established, accepted European models, he spoke to a receptive audience, and for years, this work was among the most performed of any indigenous U.S. opera. Drawing on similar folk wellsprings as Rodgers & Hammerstein, or the 1954 Jerome Moross-John LaTouche The Golden Apple, Floyd worked on the most conservative edges of modernist vocabulary.

 

Musically, despite a true gift for melody, Floyd and Susannah fell from fashion for lack of formal adventurousness, although he had later success with Cold Sassy Tree, and I am personally fond of his thematically ambitious Willie Stark (from Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men), which has rarely been performed, and never here.

 

Even so, this robustly sung Pasadena revival carries its share of surprise relevance in its frankly feminist argument that was a good decade or more ahead of its time, and in its pernicious depiction of religious intolerance driven by mob conformity and inbred hypocrisy.

 

Based, rather closely, on the biblical tale of Susannah and the Elders (a passage added to the Book of Daniel by Christian Greek compilers, and regarded by Jews as Apocrypha), the libretto tells of a backwoods innocent (Chelsea Basler, a compelling Boston soprano in her West Coast debut, assaying the part expertly for a third time), isolated from the sardonically named village of Hope Valley, Tennessee, who becomes easy prey for the suspicious minds of gossiping churchgoers in thrall to a charismatic itinerant preacher.

 

Falsely accused of being a sexual temptress and molested by the preacher in the guise of saving her soul, Susannah must ultimately learn to defend herself, shotgun in hand, from the ravages of the vengefully judgmental, resolutely un-Christian, righteous.

 

It’s in essence a simple opera, easily assimilable, luscious on the ears, with unchallenging themes, but it does have courage, and power, with deft arias that express the drama far more intensely and satisfyingly than the ancient plot. Basler excels in particular with the signpost song, “The Trees on the Mountain.”

 

Director Sara Widzer keeps the blocking simple and clear and allows the singers full rein to limn Floyd’s quite pretty vocal lines. She makes excellent use of the top-grade technical facilities of the new A Noise Within space, which happens to boast superlative acoustics for musical performance: it’s a better than viable opera house.

 

Pasadena Opera was formed last year by conductor (and former engineer) Dana Saldava, together with Dr. Indre Viskontas, soprano and neuroscientist (and cover for the lead). They hope to focus on operas with pertinent themes in a manner to encourage a broader audience to respond to the art form. Next year they plan to stage two works, likely of newer vintage and in English, and they certainly look to complement the local opera scene, which can most certainly support another company, particularly one that keeps up with the standard set by the university programs at USC and UCLA. Not coincidentally, their only prior offering was a sellout of Candide.

 

 

Candide, Long Beach Opera at Center Theater, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach; , Sat., January 30 at 2:30 p.m. & 8 p.m. (562) 432-5934, longbeachopera.org. Running time: Two hours, twenty minutes (including intermission).

 

 

Susannah, Pasadena Opera at A Noise Within (closed).

 

 

 

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