LHO’s Candide: A Vocal and Orchestral Showcase

April 7, 2011
After productions of Tosca, Otello, and Turandot, it was rather refreshing to see the Lowell House Opera return to the lighter fare of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide.  Based on Voltaire’s famous satire, the opera is full of catchy tunes, hilarity, and moral lessons as the young Candid encounters many a trial and tribulation after he is kicked out of the castle of the Baron Thunder-ten-tronckh.

The orchestra, ably conducted by Aram Demirjian ’08, was one of the stars of the show, playing for the most part with precision and vigor.  They tackled the overture with verve and swagger, and despite some weak transitions, did a formidable job of accentuating the drama of the opera.  The orchestra was extremely versatile, playing numbers such as “I Am Easily Assimilated” with Spanish flair and rhythmic accuracy, while showing musical sensitivity and lush phrasing in more dolce sections like “It Must Be So.”  Demirjian was a wonderful conductor –he was extremely expressive, pulling much energy out of the orchestra while making sure they struck an even balance with the singers.  When singers at times found themselves out of time with the orchestra (this frequently happened in the choral scenes), Demirjian was able to quickly get the ensemble back on track.  Other notable orchestral moments were the beautiful violin solo in Candide’s Lament and the wonderful emphasis and exaggeration of suspensions in the opera’s final number “Make Out Garden Grow.”  “Glitter and Be Gay,” perhaps one of the most difficult pieces for the orchestra given its tempo changes, was seamless and the communication between conductor, orchestra, and vocalist was superb.

James Onstad ’09 was a perfect match for the title role of Candide.   His bright tenor could always be heard over the orchestra, and the lightness and legato of his singing infused the character with youthfulness.  Although Onstad was at times flat, his musicality was undeniable.  His impeccable sense of phrasing and gesture made all of his musical moments a treat to listen to.  His recurring meditations were particularly beautiful.  Also of note was Liv Redpath ’14 (Cunegonde), whose vocal technique and richness were extremely impressive given her young age.  Her “Glitter and Be Gay” was superbly performed, her high notes wonderfully executed and her coloratura precise.  Although the role could have benefitted from a greater exaggeration of Cunegonde’s bratty demeanor (especially in pieces like “Oh, Happy We”), Redpath more than met the role’s vocal demands.  Other standouts included Anna Maria Ugarte as the Old Lady, and Ralph Garcia (Governow, Vanderenur, and Ragotski), both of whom provided the show with wonderful comic relief.  Ugarte’s rich mezzo was most impressive, and her resonant and forceful chest-register shown through in “I Am Easily Assimilated” and “We Are Women.”  Her acting and accent solicited numerous laughs from the audience, clearly making her the crowd favorite.  Garcia’s tenor was also impressive, and he tackled some very high passages with ease.  The chorus, perhaps due to its small size, was frequently unblended and not coordinated with the orchestra.  However, the opera’s El Dorado scene and finale did showcase moments of choral cohesion and brilliance.

Unfortunately, many of these wonderful musical performances were marred by absurd staging that often detracted and distracted from that music–among the choices, the lewd sexual gestures that abounded during the Auto-da-fe scene and “Dear Boy.”  Because of the quick scene-to-scene nature of Candide, blocking must be seamless and clear.  Unfortunately, transitions and poorly executed dialogue frequently left the plot convoluted and difficult to follow.

Although the production’s directorial choices did nothing to advance or accentuate both the humor and genuine sweetness at the opera’s core, the high caliber of the musical performances certainly saved the day.  The opera’s finale “Make Our Garden Grow,” was extremely moving, as both orchestra, chorus, and soloists left the audience with a glimmer of hope and stability at the end of a wild musical and dramatic ride.

The Harvard Art Review Music Board

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