Friday, August 11, 2023


Reviewed by James Karas

The Glimmerglass Festival has chosen to revive Francesca Zambello’s 2015 production of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide for this season. It is an unwieldy and at times difficult work to produce but Zambello managed to bring it together as a well-done satire and opera that thrilled the audience.

It is a robust, fast-moving, colourful and very well-sung production that almost zips you through all the plot complications to the final philosophical conclusion that the work is all about. You may not follow every detail, especially the philosophical backdrop  but you should enjoy the overall production.

And, yes, Candide has a serious philosophical underpinning that is presented through biting satire and comedy. On the more earthy level, there is murder, rape, war, pillage, robbery and a few other such happenings in human life that are a part of the comic operetta. It is based on a novella by Voltaire, after all.

Dr. Pangloss lives in Westphalia with the un-aristocratic Candide (Brian Vu) who loves Cunegonde (Katina Galka), the aristocratic daughter of the Baron of Westphalia (Carlos Ahrens). A commoner loving an aristocratic lady is verboten and Candide is summarily thrown out of Westphalia. Cunegonde joins him. Thus begin his travels around the world. He meets colourful and evil characters and goes through dramatic events in places like Bavaria, Montevideo, Paraguay, El Dorado and Venice. Cunegonde is with him but they are  separated and she is raped by soldiers during a war, he is flogged almost to death and I will not bore you with all the cruelties and examples of inhumanity that the operetta contains. Remember that the intent is a comic and satirical view of human conduct and institutions.

The novella and the comic opera are in the style of a picaresque work that depicts the adventures of a hero like Candide covering numerous episodes across many venues.

Brian Vu as Candide and Katrina Gulka as Cunegonde. 
Photo credit: Evan Zimmerman/The Glimmerglass Festival.

During the travels and various encounters, there is music and numerous songs, of course. Bernstein’s compositions from the now-famous overture to the incidental music to the songs are brilliant, muscular, lyrical, frequently demanding and a feast for the ear. 

The cast is led by actor Bradley Dean, a man of the theatre, who takes on the roles of Voltaire as the host and as Dr. Pangloss, the wise companion of Candide. He is charismatic and a vivacious raconteur who gives a splendid performance.

Candide is the eternal optimist who believes all is done for the good. Yes, we do live in the best of all possible worlds and no facts or disasters can dissuade him from that conviction. Needless to say, it’s all a joke.  Bernstein makes serious vocal demands on Brian Vu as Candide and he performs brilliantly. The same applies to Katrina Galka as Cunegonde who scales her high notes effortlessly and gives us a very admirable heroine.

The 2023 production of Candide. Photo credit:
 Evan Zimmerman/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Our heroes do give as well as take punishment. Dr. Pangloss is sentenced to death and Cunegonde to flogging. She is “shared” by the Grand Inquisitor (Ryan Johnson) and Don Issacar but they are both killed by our stars. The same thing happens to Maximillian when he objects to Candide marrying Cunegonde. Sweet revenge. 

As I said, Candide is based on Voltaire’s 1759 novella. The musical/opera based on it opened on Broadway in 1956 with music by Leonard Bernstein and libretto by Lilian Hellman. It didn’t really work. Since then, it has gone through head-spinning changes and revisions. The Glimmerglass production credits Hugh Wheeler for the book and Richard Wilbur, Stephen Sondheim, John la Touche, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker and Leonard Bernstein for the lyrics.

The current revival of Francesca Zambello’s 2015 production is a lively and colourful Candide that flowed reasonably smoothly despite its unwieldy plot and far too many twists and turns. Eric Sean Fogel’s revival with set designs by James Noone  and costume designs by Jennifer Moeller gives us a coherent and well-sung production. Joeph Colaneri conducts the Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra and Chorus.

Candide by Leonard Bernstein et. al. opened on July 8 and will be performed twelve times until August 20, 2023, at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. 

James Karas is the Senior Editor - Culture of The Greel Press

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