Candide at the Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver

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Candide at the Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver

Bernstein’s Candide is not just an operetta. To the inspired melodies and the hectic pace of its plot, Bernstein added social criticism by portraying all the sins of a society based in superficiality and selfishness. Last Saturday and Monday the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra (VSO) presented two performances in a concert version.

As it is well known, Candide does not need pretty scenery to portray all its artistic potential, although the variety of scenarios explored by the characters throughout the play seems to ask for such settings. The music itself is fully descriptive and, for the benefit of the audience, each scene was narrated by the English baritone Richard Suart, who also played the roles of Prof. Pangloss and Voltaire.  That is why an audience, unfamiliar with the story, could easily follow the action and enjoy the play in its entire complexity.

This production of Candide, which the VSO has presented in collaboration with the UBC Opera Ensemble, featured the operatic stars soprano Tracy Dahl as Cunegunde and tenor Alek Shrader as Candide. Despite the beauty and perfect shape of their voices, both singers failed to reach their full potential. Ms. Dahl’s diminutive voice struggled with the coloratura in Glitter and be gay, holding back some notes in the cadenza. Alek Shrader, who arrived in Vancouver after his success as Camille in The Merry Widow at the MET, was a sweet and poignant Candide, but his intimate performance was surpassed by the sound of the Vancouver Symphony.

Richard Suart, a flawless actor, gave a tasteful delivery, in spite of a rather nasal sound and a somewhat stilted vocal line. His characters were appealing and fair, but not always vocally sound. Canadian mezzo Judith Forst played the role of the Old Lady showing off her musical instincts and providing a hilarious moment, dancing the tango with Maestro Tovey in I Am Easily Assimilated.

The music in Candide is always suggestive and eloquent and includes some of the most famous Bernstein’s highlights. It was well delivered technically by the VSO and the talented Choir of the UBC Opera Ensemble, all of them led by the joyful Maestro Tovey. Probably one of the best moments of the evening was the Auto da Fe and the finely tuned ensemble at the end of the first act. 

The overall show was bright and delightful and the company received a warm and enthusiastic standing ovation at the end. Nevertheless, it did not achieve its full splendor, becoming somewhat mired in disturbing secondary details, instead of remaining focused on the music. Bernstein’s music is full of thoughtful content and evocative ideas, some of them not comic at all. Part of the goal of the composer was to move to debate what comprises ‘the cornerstone of democracy’ as Bernstein said, and reflect on the absurdity of a life based on materialism and superficiality. ‘I have no words to describe the vanity of life’ sings one of the characters. Candide is not just an operetta. It is a social commentary and that is the root of it success. I think the VSO gave up on this aspect in its production.

Carlos Javier Lopez