From the opening notes of the famed overture, you realize why the music in “Candide” has remained so beloved over the years. There’s a shoulders-back, ready-to-strut, nearly giddy feel of adventure ahead. But there’s also something about Leonard Bernstein’s music that hints at danger and complexity: a sense that the way forward won’t be nearly as bright and carefree as you’d like to think.
Frankly, after watching the Fresno Grand Opera production of “Candide” that opened Friday at the Shaghoian Hall, I’d rather listen to a concert of music from the show than watch the staged version. This production features accomplished singing from a cheery cast of principals. Director Joseph Bascetta finds some creative ways to stage the action in a small space, and he keeps the bewildering plot barreling along at a brisk pace. But the line between satire and slapstick in “Candide” is difficult to navigate. What comes across as brilliantly acerbic and biting on the page, as penned by Voltaire in his classic work on which this operetta is based, becomes on the stage overly broad and bloated. I felt as if I were watching more an academic exercise, a historical salute, and less an emotionally fulfilling operatic experience.
John Pickle is a robust and amiable Candide, taking every blow thrown at him by the storyline with a cheeky sense of “let’s do it.” (He and his lover, Cunegonde, who reside at the beginning of the tale in a smugly perfect kingdom that is “The Best of All Possible Worlds,” are soon dumped into the reality of life, as a seemingly never-ending series of calamities and disappointments come their way.) He gets to sing the beautiful “It Must Be So,” a highlight. Maureen Francis, as Cunegonde, delivers the crowd-pleasing “Glitter and Be Gay” with a fine sense of comic timing (though her highest notes weren’t quite effective), and she and Pickle have some fine moments yukking it up as the mostly-separated lovers.
Patrick Jacobs is strong as the narrator and as the whimsical Dr. Pangloss, whose optimistic philosophical pronouncements are targeted by Voltaire, and Janara Kellerman, as the Old Lady, gets a chance to show off her comic chops to memorable effect. (Nicholle Debbas’ choreography adds a nice touch.)
The Fresno Grand Opera Chorus is livened up by several very capable local musical theater actors, including Steve Souza as the Grand Inquisitor and Jacob Carrillo as the “Rich Jew,” who serve as punching bags for Voltaire’s targeting of religion. (Between the potshots at religious and military institutions, along with Bascetta’s occasionally bawdy stagings of sexual situations, the purest-hearted FGO-goer might be mildly offended.)
I enjoyed much of Bascetta’s light-hearted staging of the material, from the smallest wink (a costumed chorus member, shaking his head, pops on for a moment to hand Candide a satchel) to big, clever moments (a rolling ship on the sea is formed by a mast and four ropes, very effective). The competent costumes, supplied by an outside company, add flair to the visuals, but the rudimentary projections above the stage don’t work very well. The small Shaghoian stage, without the ability to fly in scenery, continues to hamper the opera company’s ability to deliver professional looking productions.
I was also underwhelmed by the size of the 13-piece orchestra, conducted by Curtis Tucker. With a string section of just one violin, viola, cello and bass each, the overture sounded thin, indeed, and there were some intonation problems with the reeds.
Still, Bernstein’s music in “Candide” is triumphant. By the time we reach the glorious “Make Your Garden Grow,” with its eloquence about the virtues of simple work and honest living, we reach a high point. I could listen to the glorious a cappella verse many times. Even with the sometimes stale silliness of what’s come before, it’s a shining moment on the stage.