To celebrate what would have been Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday, the University Opera Theatre and University Symphony Orchestra put on a production of his famous Candide this weekend. Through Bernstein’s catchy songs performed by talented singers and orchestra members, the audience was lead on the wild ride Voltaire’s naive young man, Candide.
The wonder of Voltaire’s story is that despite the superficial optimism and lightheartedness which buoys the entire narrative, there are very serious themes at work which take on much more serious tones. The musical opera translation of this, and the performance I saw, balanced these very well. Alternating between small chalkboards with the word “GUN” and funny love songs on mismatched ideals were darker issues concerning intolerance, including sexism and classism. Of course, this satire is part of what made this production so great to experience. The audience laughed at the perpetual optimism of Pangloss, the tutor, even when he revealed his syphilis contraction which would have ended in his death at the time. Candide’s equally naive love interest, Cunegonde, has an eye rolling and amusing vapidity and superficiality until one actually considers the pain of rape and prostitution that she goes through. The main characters’ seemingly silly plights were made funny, then quickly made somber and serious only to switch back to a lighthearted mood once again.
This complexity was all accomplished through masterful singing and what can only be described as truly creative and skillful sets. An entire map of the world was drawn on a large backdrop, and with each “situation” Candide and his associates found themselves in people would climb up on ladders with their own pieces of chalk and fill in where and what happened in the story, until at the very end where audience members could see the entire expanse of what had happened. Ensemble members were dressed in grey school uniforms, which to me not only added to the “school setting” but also provided a great juxtaposition between the more brightly, some might say garishly, costumed main characters. It seemed to make an additional point: while Candide and his friends were living wild adventures and discovering so much of life, the majority of the world stayed the same and people just had to survive. Then of course there was the singing and acting themselves, which were performed wonderfully and had the audience laughing and more seriously quiet.
It was such a fantastic opportunity to be able to come see this production, and I look forward to being able to see the creativity with which the next piece is directed. Congratulations to all of the performers!