Review: ‘Candide’ by the Washington National Opera

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Washington National Opera concludes its 2017-2018 season with a fresh production of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide directed by Washington National Opera’s Artistic Director Francesca Zambello.

Wynn Harmon, Emily Pogorelc, Alek Shrader, and Denyce Graves in Candide. Photo by Scott Suchman.

If it’s been a while since you brushed up on your 18th-century novellas, Voltaire was a French philosopher in the Age of Enlightenment. His story centers on a young man named Candide who is a naive student of optimism thrust into an eye-opening odyssey that borders on ridiculous. He sees the worst of humanity at every turn from war to natural disasters, to human trafficking and disease. Candide asks the age-old questions: “How can a good God let evil run rampant?” And “what is the purpose of pain?” You know, light fare like that. In Bernstein’s operetta, based on the Voltaire novella, the satire and black comedy are paired with a stunning score and some of the most exquisite soloists you will ever hear.

Comprised of a cast of 23, the full-voiced ensemble feels like 40+ when they all take the stage together for such thrilling numbers as “Voltaire Chorale,” “Auto-da-fé,” and “I am Easily Assimilated.”

The cast is ideally led by tenor Alek Shrader in the title role, soprano Emily Pogorelc as Cunegonde, WNO favorite Denyce Graves as the Old Lady, and Wynn Harmon as Voltaire/Dr. Pangloss. Pogorelc’s rendition of “Glitter and Be Gay” is a standout highlight of the operetta. Local opera fans ought to run to see this performance while Pogorelc is still a relative newcomer. Tickets to see the future star will be hard to come by later.

Emily Pogorelc, Denyce Graves, and Alek Shrader in Candide. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Candide’s music is written by Leonard Bernstein. While it has endured several book versions, it is adapted from Voltaire’s searing satire by Hugh Wheeler with a new version by John Caird. Lyrics are by Richard Wilbur with additional lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, John La Touche, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, and Leonard Bernstein.

The stunning sixty-plus piece orchestra is conducted by Nicole Paiement. Eric Sean Fogel’s choreography is a treat. The highly creative scenic design is by James Noone. Costume design is by Jennifer Moeller. And lighting design is by Mark McCullough.

This production is the centerpiece of the Kennedy Center’s season-long Leonard Bernstein at 100 celebration. Leonard Bernstein at 100 is the world-wide celebration of the 100th birthday of Leonard Bernstein, the composer, conductor, educator, musician, cultural ambassador, and humanitarian.

Candide’s brand of comedy takes a certain sense of humor to enjoy. If you can sit in the dark and laugh at an operetta making light of mankind’s worst atrocities, then it might be for you. Candide has a unique style of comedy and a bewildering pace as it introduces (and subsequently kills off) character after character.

Candide (the character) goes through so many experiences in two hours and 45 minutes, that he is easily the only character the audience truly has time to connect with and root for.

Those who can enjoy the ride, laugh at life’s absurdities, and appreciate the deeper meaning, will enjoy it most. And even if you can’t, you can’t argue with the stunning score and incredible performances. Zambello’s production serves its audience very well. Whether or not Candide is your taste, it is a fine show.

Candide is performed in English with projected English subtitles.

Running Time: Two hours and 45 minutes, including one 25-minute intermission

Candide plays through May 26, 2018, at the Kennedy Center Opera House –  2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 467-4600, or purchase them online.