Leonard Bernstein never seemed completely satisfied with “Candide,” which he hoped would be the great American opera. Six lyricists are credited; others were tried. After its first New York production in 1956, he collaborated on seven other versions, and the Scottish Opera production of 1988 sparkles like a diamond in its American premiere by the Opera Theater of St. Louis.
With soprano Constance Hauman reprising her Glasgow triumph as Cunegonde, every facet of the production shows style and grace, though the brilliantly satirical inquisition scene written by Lillian Hellman was not reinserted (cut in Boston in 1956 and never revived).
Director Colin Graham stages the opera for broad farce, which works. But the biting satire of linking the Spanish Inquisition to Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his inquisitorial methods is not emphasized; Humphrey Burton’s program commentary fills in the gaps.
With Stephen Lord conducting members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, outstanding voices in every role and a beautifully balancedchorus, “Candide” also is a technical triumph, with Robin VerHage-Abrams’ costumes, showing a commedia dell’arte influence, playing perfectly against the rather stark permanent backdrop designed by Derek McLane. Designer Emanuele Luzzati softened things nicely along the way.
The story of Candide and his mentor, Voltaire/Dr. Pangloss, finding “this is the best of all possible worlds” against a backdrop of pain, persecution and privilege, is as important today as it was when Voltaire wrote it in 1759, aimed at the philosophy of Liebnitz and theactions of the Catholic Church.
They bumble on from Westphalia to Lisbon to Paris to Rio to Venice, smiling happily and taking their lumps as they go.
Both Hauman and Kevin Anderson, in the title role, look and sound completely optimistic through all the travails, and they are splendid. Combined singing and acting honors, however, go to bass-baritone John Stephens and mezzo Josepha Gayer. As Voltaire and Dr. Pangloss, Stephens rolls out high dramatic effect, both spoken and sung, and Gayer, obviously reveling in the role, has most of the best lines as the Old Lady, and delivers them for ultimate impact.
Baritone Stephen Combs is as vocally striking as he is handsome as Maximilian , Cunegonde’s brother, and soprano Suzanne Balaes is a perky delight as the maid. Tenor Brad Cresswell plays a variety of villains in charmingly villainous style, kind of like a classic Captain Hook without the hook. A first-rate production in every respect.