Arts & Leisure

Review: A ‘Candide’ like no other

Cree Carrigo, as Cunegonde, sings the famous “Glitter and Be Gay” in Opera Company of Middlebury’s production of Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide.” This performance premiered

I have just emerged from a screening of Opera Company of Middlebury’s (OCM) brilliant retelling of Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide.” The signature tune from the overture filling my head, I cannot get over the feeling of giddiness from two hours of sustained laughter and wonderment — an unfamiliar sensation after 15 months of COVID-19 lockdown.

It feels like a new world — in this messiest of all possible worlds.

This is a beautiful story.

First, imagine: A pandemic rages across the land. The OCM board and Artistic Director Douglas B. Anderson, faced with how to continue producing opera at their customary high performance level on an intimate scale for the 18th year in a row, grapple with whether they can stage a live production in June 2021. Following Vermont Governor Phil Scott’s and CDC guidelines, they opt for a high performance level staging of the 1993 Scottish Opera Concert version of “Candide,” with a full live orchestra and singers from across the country, in a medium entirely new to them: video, to be streamed online.

Participants will adhere to CDC guidelines, masks worn, social distancing followed. They will be tested and quarantined. The music will be live. Dramatic singing and staging will be filmed, live, on THT’s stage. And the goal? Not simply to point a video camera at singers listening to an orchestral score through ear buds, but, rather, to create a full-length film that will be riveting, hilarious, beautifully performed, expertly edited and produced, and original.

Would they all prefer it to be performed live, on stage? You bet. Is that an option? No.

Undaunted, Anderson quotes Orson Welles: “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.” And indeed, as COVID-19 months have provided more limitations than many of us could have imagined, creative people have learned to work in new, exciting ways, to collaborate with new people, and to take one form and transform it. That is exactly what OCM’s team has done with their version of “Candide,” which premiered June 15 and will continue to stream on the OCM’s YouTube channel through June 30.

A silver lining from pandemic times; after six months of learning, planning and inventing — and thousands of hours of music making, acting, filming, editing and mixing — OCM’s video version of “Candide” is a pitch perfect, naughty, hilarious, satirical romp, with beautifully engineered scenes, perfect pacing and glorious music.

To be honest, I am gobsmacked: a word meaning speechless yet containing a hint of unexpected surprise. Back in 1974, I saw Bernstein’s “Candide” on Broadway. The music was wonderful, the performers talented, but the production was hectic, and the plot incomprehensible, and I left with no desire to ever see it again.

Although I was feeling skeptical as the virtual “curtain” went up for the screening today, seconds later I was in happy tears in the thrall of a luscious, multi-layered Bernstein overture, in which the score and the videography soared.

“Candide” is based on Voltaire’s 1759 satirical novel of the same name. Our hero, Candide, cast out from his home, which includes the woman he is about to marry (Cunégonde) and the philosophy classroom of Professor Pangloss, who teaches the philosophy of optimism — that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds — travels through the world, witnessing violence, war, starvation, torture, murder, hangings, loss of love, volcanic eruptions, sinking ships, man’s inhumanity to man (and woman), and slowly — painfully — becomes disillusioned.

Voltaire’s “Candide” is comic satire — and it is funny.

OCM’s version is even funnier because of Anderson’s additions to the narrator’s script, his incomparable casting (everyone has superb comedic timing), the infusion of local details, and the way the video is made: melding current and historical world events with Voltaire’s fantastical version of world events in the original novel. Think “Our Town” inside a French picaresque novel, in the middle of a real pandemic, designed by a group of talented artists who are playing with a new medium and loving every minute of it. This “Candide” positively crackles with wit and energy.

From the skies above a small New England town, the audience “flies” through the front doors into a small, intimate theater, soars around the lobby, up the stairs into the balcony, into an empty hall; empty, that is, of chairs and people, as sunlight streams through the leaded windows. Suddenly, the room is filled with a live full orchestra, whose members are distanced, masked, or sitting in Plexiglas boxes (even some of the wind and brass instruments are masked). Electrical cords snake across the floor through a forest of 40 microphones. And there is the music: a glorious full orchestral sound from musicians led by Music Director Michael Sakir. That’s when I started crying, grounded briefly in pandemic music making…

Thus begins our riveting gambol through Voltaire’s unlikely story, orchestrated and added to by Bernstein and multiple writers (from Dorothy Parker to Stephen Sondheim), interpreted now by Anderson and his brilliant team, delivered by a fantastically talented cast. It’s a journey through time and space, music, singing, storytelling, fantastical props, green screens and new technologies, colorful costumes, and outlandish and nuanced comedic acting.

In another of Anderson’s brilliant casting decisions, former Vermont Governor (and Middlebury resident) Jim Douglas plays our deadpan, witty narrator, without whom chaos surely would reign. Settled in a large leather wingchair surrounded by shelves of books, Douglas nearly steals the show with his understated, avuncular yet entrancing narration — the perfect antidote to the outrageous plot. Peppered with political asides, Douglas’s performance is a must see.

The principals, all of whom have graced THT’s stage before, are all masters of their craft. When I consider the technical limitations they performed under, I am in awe of their performances.

The orchestral score was recorded first, while Music Director Michael Sakir imagined how each singer might perform. Later, after quarantining, the singers performed onstage, in front of green screens, the orchestral recording piped into ear buds. No lip-syncing, this is all sung in real pandemic time.

Bernstein’s music is beautiful, rowdy, soulful and complex. The role of Cunégonde, for example, requires virtuosity at the top of the register, and soprano Cree Carrico not only makes it look easy (it isn’t), but sexy and fun: It is a thrill to listen to her. Her acting is fresh and nuanced.

Tenor Quinn Bernegger’s Candide, our protagonist, is innocent and soulful; his renditions of Bernstein’s wrenching, soaring ballads will pierce your heart.

Bass-baritone Blake Jennings, a wonderful vocalist and very funny actor, plays Cunégonde’s brother, Maximilian.

Dr. Pangloss (resembling Voltaire?) is brought to life through Joshua Jeremiah’s beautiful deep voice and amazing facial expressions. His love interest, Paquette, who dies yet reappears several times, is well played and sung by mezzo-soprano Heather Jones.

Brandon local Joshua Collier is gleeful, and always a rascal, as he sings with a clear and dramatic tenor voice through several roles: The Governor, Vanderdendur, the Croupier, a Parisian and a sailor.

Mezzo-soprano Tara Curtis brings us a luscious, bawdy, brilliantly scheming Old Lady with a full, rich voice and remarkable comedic timing. With a growly bass-baritone voice, Kian Freitas plays several roles: Captain, Martin and a Crook.

And there is more: an ensemble choir of eight stunningly blended voices. Professional Vermont singers Melissa Chesnut-Tangerman, Victoria Drew, Adam Hall, Mason Jarboe, Linda Radtke, Allison Steinmetz, Cameron Steinmetz and Neil Wacek came to THT after yet another pandemic interval, and, socially distanced onstage, pre-recorded orchestral music piped into ear buds, sang into individual microphones. No blocking, no costumes for this chorus, their sound is ethereal, and wait till you see how they are visually woven into the video.

Which brings me to the making of the video.

Anderson knows how to produce musical theater and opera at the highest level, but he is not a digital native, and he is not a filmmaker. Enter Tim Joy and a team of videographers and a whole panoply of new technologies for OCM. Suddenly, with the addition of green screens, overhead cameras, drones, choices in editing and mixing, the world of additional digital visual material, creative possibilities blossom. Timing matters. Pacing matters. Types of visual material matter. Tim Joy and Doug Anderson’s collaboration through new media is thrilling.

When you add in the dream team of Executive Producer Mary Longey, veteran Lighting Designer Neil Curtis, Costume Designer Debby Anderson, Co-Technical Directors Bill Friml and Peter Dempewolff, Scenic Artist Elinor Steel Friml, Properties Mistress Kate Tilton, Wardrobe Mistress and Set Dresser Mary Kay Dempewolff, and Company Manager Erica Furgiuele, you have a visual and sound experience you must not miss.

This unique, exciting, funny and brilliant video retelling of Leonard Bernstein’s comic operetta “Candide” will stream live June 15-30 on The Opera Company of Middlebury’s YouTube channel. Individual tickets are $35. Household tickets are $60. Tickets are available through the Town Hall Theater Box Office; call 802-388-1436, or go online to townhalltheater.org.

Here’s the trailer:

Editor’s Note: Local artist Kate Gridley attended a private pre-screening of Opera Company of Middlebury’s virtual performance of “Candide” on Sunday, June 13.

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