by Stephen Cera
WASHINGTON – Both this city and New York were my destinations last week for musical theater.
Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide,” which I attended at the Kennedy Center Opera House, seems destined to be a “problem-child” of the Bernstein catalog. Yet another updated version – this one by John Caird, from the Glimmerglass Festival in upstate New York — was re-mounted this month at the Kennedy Center as part of a run of productions honoring the late (1918-1990) composer/conductor/teacher (…and chain smoker, alas) during what would have been his centenary year.
It’s directed brilliantly by Francesca Zambello, Artistic Director of the Washington National Opera and Glimmerglass Festival in upstate New York — despite the odd gaucherie. “Candide” has always been susceptible to topical agendas and this version is no exception. It boasts abundant energy and color, bracing choreography by Eric Sean Fogel, and Emily Pogorelc as Cunegonde.
The show attempts valiantly if unsuccessfully to mask “Candide’s” unevenness. The piece has been nearly picked to death for decades by such luminaries as Harold Prince, Hugh Wheeler, Stephen Sondheim, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, John La Touche and Bernstein himself. One leaves the theater still not quite sure what it is: an opera, a musical comedy, or an operetta. This matters…somehow “Candide” always seems neither fish nor fowl, a factor that must have contributed to its ambivalent reception over the years since its premiere in 1956.
The performance I attended opened less than promisingly with an un-fizzy account of the popular Overture, led by Montreal-born maestra Nicole Paiement (an unfamiliar name to me, with impressive credentials). Later in the show, she coaxed more energy and generally enforced tauter ensemble.
Vocal highlights included a sexy Cunegonde from Ms. Pogorelc, and clarion vocalism in the title role by tenor Alek Shrader, though he delivered his lines of dialogue a bit quickly. Mezzo Denyce Graves, far from an old lady herself, sang the role of The Old Lady. A magnificent concert and opera singer who can deliver a knockout Carmen, she appeared uncharacteristically stiff at times, which may have been due to the character’s missing buttock (!) … Still, “Candide” is a romp, and that is what the director underlined. The traces of coarseness put me off, but this is 2018 after all, when anything is possible.