Song for Leonard

Opera gala celebrates legendary composer

The embrace of Candide and Cunegonde—Valdis Birznicks and Lauren Sutton-Beattie.

The embrace of Candide and Cunegonde—Valdis Birznicks and Lauren Sutton-Beattie.

Photo by Ken Pordes

Candide, Saturday, Sept. 22
Harlen Adams Theatre
Chico State

As part of the worldwide celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of iconic American composer, conductor, educator, musician, cultural ambassador and humanitarian Leonard Bernstein, Chico State chose to present the maestro’s comic operetta, Candide, for its Fall Opera Gala. The work is based on the satirical comic novella of the same title originally published by the iconoclastic French philosopher Voltaire in 1759. Like much satire that explores timeless matters of religious and capitalistic oppression of the masses, the humor is dark, but the laughter it provokes is genuine though perhaps bittersweet.

Bernstein wrote the music for Candide—with the book for the current version by Hugh Wheeler (Lillian Hellman wrote the original for the production that debuted on Broadway in 1956)—in a manner reminiscent of the light operas of Gilbert and Sullivan. In Chico State’s minimalist “semi-staged” concert version of the operetta, the focus centered on the music and singing rather than elaborate settings or costumes and featured the 26-piece orchestra seated on stage in front of a casually dressed 41-piece chorus.

Interestingly, but sensibly, given the all-on-stage setting, director Bradley Martin chose to conduct from a seated position so as not to distract from the choreography and movements of the actors on stage. Candide opens with its immensely popular “Overture,” a miniature masterpiece of composition that previews many of the operetta’s musical themes linked to characters and scenes, and the orchestra performed it beautifully. The “Overture” weaves seamlessly through passages that evoke moments ranging from nearly hectic gaiety to pastoral contemplation and majestic beauty. All in about 4 1/2 minutes.

With musicians setting the bar so high, the performances of the actors/singers could only hope to match the brilliance of their accompanists, and the cast joyously rose to the occasion. John Mahoney as Dr. Pangloss/Voltaire intoned his baritone narration with fittingly seriocomic pomposity, and the two young wannabe lovers, Candide and Cunegonde—Valdis Birznicks and Lauren Sutton-Beattie—exuded the melodramatic emotions of young people experiencing the first bloom of romance.

Which, of course, brings complications and conflicts galore. For daring to kiss Cunegonde, Candide is exiled from his formerly privileged position in the royal household and driven to conscription into an army of revolutionaries who wipe out his former home and its inhabitants including (he thinks) his beloved Cunegonde. In despair, he becomes a wandering beggar and eventually reunites with the miraculously revived Pangloss, only to be blamed for causing a catastrophic earthquake by supernatural means.

The travails and adventures of Candide as his beliefs and understanding of the world are challenged is Voltaire’s means of expressing his concerns with human culture in the mid-18th century. But Bernstein’s true emotional focus is on the plight of Cunegonde, who is forced to part from her true love at the beginning of the operetta and then is repeatedly raped, kidnapped, subjected to unwanted advances and eventually “kept” as a plaything by wealthy “gentlemen” in Paris.

The musical highlight and showpiece of the operetta is Cunegonde’s song, “Glitter and Be Gay.” Sutton-Beattie gave a truly bravura performance on the aria, with a comically overwrought operatic style that pushed her voice’s range and flexibility to places that hardly seemed possible, while simultaneously performing choreographed movements that took her from lying on a couch to dancing from one side of the stage to the other. The combination of grace, humor and skill while expressing the sentiment of the lyric—“Harsh necessity/Brought me to this gilded cage/Born to higher things/Here I droop my wings/Ah! Singing of a sorrow nothing can assuage”—offered a study of poignant self-acceptance driven to the point of self-mocking hysteria. And it was genuinely funny as well.

As a “Gala,” the event seemed pretty low-key. No champagne fountains or tuxedos were in evidence. But the celebratory rush of a dazzling performance for an appreciative audience made up for any lack of cosmetic finery.Ω