A hanging, a hurricane, a flood, a rape, plus multiple other acts of violence, all happening across a variety of countries and continents.
No wonder Leonard Bernstein’s operetta “Candide” has flummoxed directors since it flopped on Broadway in 1956, just months before the composer’s triumphant “West Side Story” premiere.
After years of hoping to get it right, Theater Latté Da artistic director Peter Rothstein opened his very first “Candide” Thursday evening, a semi-staged collaboration with Twin Cities choir VocalEssence.
It was a richly satisfying experience. Rothstein’s solution to the work’s myriad geographical locations was to re-imagine the action as a 1930s radio broadcast. “Think Orson Welles’ ‘War of the Worlds’ without the mass hysteria,” is how Rothstein put it.
Fringing the stage area was a row of old-school ribbon microphones for the vocal soloists. VocalEssence music director Philip Brunelle stood at a central podium, presiding over a choir of 70 singers and 14 instrumentalists. At stage left was a wooden lectern for narrator Bradley Greenwald and a props table for the dazzling array of sound effects created for the live “broadcast.”
Greenwald’s brilliant performance perfectly captured the satirical spirit of Voltaire’s 18th-century novella on which Bernstein’s operetta is based. By turns droll, caustic, playful and irreverent, Greenwald’s beautifully paced narration spun the listener compellingly through Candide’s picaresque adventures in the not quite “best of all possible worlds.”
As Candide, Phinehas Bynum cut a convincingly boyish figure, his light tenor imparting a touchingly artless quality to songs such as “It Must Be So.”
Soprano Liv Redpath brought rare quality to the Cunegonde character. Redpath owned the crazily difficult coloratura of the showpiece aria “Glitter and Be Gay.” And her gleaming tone was a thrilling cap to the ensemble numbers.
Rodolfo Nieto was an amusingly narcissistic Maximilian. Susan Hofflander swaggered as the Old Woman with a missing buttock. VocalEssence associate conductor G. Phillip Shoultz III showed his vocal chops with a couple of cameo appearances.
At the props table, VocalEssence production manager Andrew Alness (aka “Gofer” for this production) had a busy evening, lining up the sound effects that illustrated the story. Greenwald gave a virtuoso display operating them, splitting a fistful of uncooked spaghetti to mimic a shipwreck and scrunching celery to suggest a neck breaking. Alness himself chipped in at one point with a particularly gruesome disembowelment of a raw cabbage.
But this “Candide” went for more than just belly laughter. It also pointed to how laughter often comes at the expense of others, making it easier to ignore their predicaments. At the operetta’s ending, Bynum movingly captured Candide’s eventual realization that the eternal optimist is bound for disappointment. And the VocalEssence choir made a refulgent impression in the great concluding chorus “Make Our Garden Grow.”
Bernstein’s “Candide” may be a difficult piece to master. But it’s undoubtedly a masterpiece, a fact fully confirmed in Rothstein’s wonderfully imaginative production.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.