Ravinia attempts the best of all possible worlds with Bernstein’s “Candide”

A scene from Leonard Bernstein’s comic operetta “Candide” at the Ravinia Festival.  (Courtesy of Patrick Gipson/Ravinia Festival)

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” is one of his most charming works, combining the outrageous satire of Voltaire’s 1759 novella with a barrel full of arias, songs, and dances with the power to make you laugh and possibly cry. Bernstein’s distillation captures the title character’s journey from believing the view of his mentor, Dr. Pangloss, that we live in the best of all possible worlds, through slow but inexorable disillusionment, to finally arriving at acceptance of a flawed world.

“Candide” was not a success when it premiered in 1956. But time as well as a series of changes and improvements altered the public’s perception. Last week the Ravinia Festival offered its first ever performance of this two-act comic operetta, in the 1989 version using the book by Hugh Wheeler. It featured the chamber orchestra, The Knights, along with a raft of able soloists.

Eric Jacobsen conducted The Knights in a gleaming performance. A conductor hugging the concertmaster before picking up his baton is unusual, but when you discover that the two are brothers, it becomes charming and highlights the close collaboration between conductor and players. And the collaboration was a magnificent success.

Jacobsen presided over a performance full of energy and vitality. There were taut, tight rhythms, and the dance-inspired sections of the score were particularly glorious. Jacobsen’s pacing was deft, and his control of the dynamics was admirable. The sound from the orchestra glimmered and gleamed, and the brightness of the flute floated throughout the pavilion. The Knights were the perfect ensemble to bring Ravinia’s two-year celebration of Bernstein to a worthy conclusion.

The orchestra was placed at the back of the large Ravinia Pavilion stage, on various platforms, leaving a significant space at the front for the 13-member cast.

Stage director Alison Moritz ensured that the operetta was fast-paced, and while the props were few, the story proceeded clearly. An easel on stage left contained large cards indicating where the action was taking place (the story roams through both the Old World and the New), with the addition of new cards incorporated into the stage movement. The lighting by Aaron Copp was expertly done. Two marvelous non-singing dancers, with choreography by John Heginbotham, added depth.

The casting was obviously done with an emphasis on strong acting skills. The singers were superb at connecting with the audience and each and every one had comic flair.

The audience loved it, applauding after nearly every number and offered their greatest applause when it was all over.

Entertaining as this “Candide” was, I cannot offer a Panglossian assessment of the overall performance. The central problem was that this production valued laughter over all else, and there certainly were laughs aplenty. The stage was beautifully outfitted at the back and sides with regal red curtains and from the center of the roof radiated out strings of lights. It was meant to resemble a circus tent and succeeded. All the characters, chorus, and dancers were dressed as circus performers. The emphasis on humor began as clownish and at times descended into cartoonish.

Miles Mykkanen as the title character had an attractive tenor and displayed all the skills needed to bring the disaster-prone Candide to life. But the unrelenting emphasis on getting laughs, or failing that, overdoing the pathos, meant that there was no room for him (or anyone else in the cast) to offer a more nuanced performance.

It was hard to appreciate soprano Sharleen Joynt because of her remarkably distracting vibrato and her tendency to misshape some vowels. Yet she sang “Glitter and be Gay,” one of the most famous numbers from “Candide,” with striking clarity and precision, including the numerous treacherously high notes. She was dressed by costume designer Amanda Seymour in a skimpy circus get-up that enhanced her natural beauty.

Margaret Gawrysiak’s put-on accent as the Old Lady was heavy and hard to understand without the merit of being funny or even readily understandable. But she had an attractive mezzo with good sound at the top.

Evan Jones was an excellent ringmaster, but hard to believe as a philosopher, comic or not. Nonetheless, as Pangloss, Voltaire, and Cacambo he played a crucial role in the telling of the story and had tremendous stage presence.

Evan Bravos, Alex Mansoori, and Sarah Larsen filled out the remaining roles and fit well into the production. The chorus numbers were without exception fantastically done, almost certainly because they were generally shorn of buffoonish attempts at humor. Dancers John Eirich and Courtney Lopes were sizzling.

Although I would have liked more attention to the musical detail and less emphasis on a lowest common denominator attempt at a commercial musical, it must be said that this production was mounted with great attention to detail. It is amazing that such an elaborate and well-rehearsed show should be given only a single performance. While it isn’t for everyone, a production like this would appeal to a large number of people, and one hopes that all the effort put into this “Candide” might mean that it be seen again elsewhere.