Having never seen an opera performed live before, I was especially excited to see the University Opera Theatre and University Symphony Orchestra’s production of Candide. It was a fantastic show, and after all, it’s Leonard Bernstein!
The themes of the show were somewhat surprising to me – for an opera known for its exuberance and optimism, there were many much darker themes under this joyful guise. While Pangloss, Candide’s tutor, teaches that it is “the best of all possible worlds,” Candide believes that his love, Cunegonde, is dead, yet in reality, she is being prostituted out. There is an obvious disparity between Pangloss’s view of the world and what the audience perceives as the character’s actual experiences. In another scene, when Pangloss contracts syphilis, he cheerfully notes that bees both sting and make sweet honey, and the satire could not be more evident. By the end of the show, Candide has become disillusioned by his tutor’s effervescent optimism, but is still able to begin to make a life with Cunegonde, whom he has been reunited with. In the end, it is not ignorant optimism that brings them together, but acknowledgement of all they have been through.
On another note, I especially enjoyed the opera’s set. All the scenery and props consisted of drawings or writing on chalkboards, an artistic choice that seemed to carry with it much symbolism. For example, when there was a battle scene, the characters were armed with chalkboards reading “bayonet” or “sword.” Trees were drawn on large chalkboards, and in one scene, large framed chalkboards with drawn chandeliers were lowered from above. The plot is narrated throughout by Voltaire (author of the novella Candide), and the combination of the narration and the chalkboard set casts the audience in the role of student. In my opinion, it emphasized the satirical aspect of the operetta, illustrating that the audience is supposed to learn or realize something as a result. It certainly caused me to think.
The singing, as well as the orchestra, was also fantastic and very professional. I left the show with themes from the songs stuck in my head for the rest of the night, which was hardly surprising given that they were composed by Leonard Bernstein! This production of Candide was a part of Leonard Bernstein at 100, the “world-wide celebration of the 100th birthday of Leonard Bernstein, the composer, conductor, educator, musician, cultural ambassador, and humanitarian.” The celebration began on August 25, 2017, which would have been Bernstein’s 99th birthday, and continues through August 25, 2019. For more information about Leonard Bernstein at 100, or just about Leonard Bernstein in general, visit https://leonardbernstein.com/at100.
Bernstein’s Candide was a compilation of beautiful music and a thought-provoking and challenging story line that I am glad to have witnessed! Excellent job to all those involved!