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DEPARTMENT OF THEATRE, BOSTON COLLEGE
MAY 1, 2005
B.C. gives us 'the best of all possible worlds' in a sylish and quality production of a Bernstein favorite.
Photo: Lee pelligrini
Reviewed by: Paul Joseph Walkowski
Voltaire’s classic satire centers around the innocent optimism of a young man, Candide, who believes everything his instructor, Dr. Pangloss, tells him about the structured orderliness of the world, even when his own life’s experiences suggest that ‘the best of all possible worlds’ may not be quite what it’s all cracked up to be. In his life he is separated from his homeland, falls in love with the lovely Cunegonde, loses his love, is sent to war, is captured and enslaved, brought up on charges of heresy, executed and left for dead by henchmen of the Inquisition, found, redeemed, reunited with and separated again from his love, shipwrecked, and eventually enlightened by a wise man who looks suspiciously like the ghost of his original teacher, and an older woman with a single buttock (her other buttock was chewed off by a shark) only to discover that ‘in the best of all words’, the greatest reward may be one’s own hard work – and then you die.
WHERE I VIEW IT:
The Robsham Theater Arts Center on Boston College Campus is home to B.C.’s Department of Theatre headed by Dr. Stuart J. Hecht. The hall (theater) is cozy, acoustically suitable for musicals and roomy, with an orchestra pit that sits front center stage below the action, allowing performers to walk around it. Surprisingly the sound from the pit is not muted at all, but rather is quite full, and because it is situated as it is, there is no interference with the performance or distracting lights from music stands or spotlights that might otherwise distract.
While purists may argue this is not an opera, per se, others, like this writer, would counter that in the American tradition, who cares? Alternatively, one might argue that it’s close enough because it contains the style and the essential elements of opera to be called such. [See our Feedback section for an earlier discussion on opera, titled: “Does new opera have the staying power of traditional opera?”] In that section I adopt the definition of opera as articulated in an article from Goldberg Magazine [Internet] by Sophie Roughol, translated by Claire Fontijn, from Wellesley College. There, Roughol asked and answered to my satisfaction, at least, the question: “What is opera?” She wrote: “What do L’Orfeo, Don Juan, the Ring, and Wozzeck have in common? Form? Drama? Nothing at all, taken separately, but together, yes. And it is precisely by discovering for the first time a mode of convergence  between a dramatic recitative, a continuous melodic expression, and a formal architecture” that true opera was and is formed. Hence, based on the three criteria just stated, we treat and review Leonard Bernstein’s Candide as opera, because in this writer’s view, it falls comfortably inside the parameters of the three criteria just articulated.
The performance of Candide staged by Boston College’s Department of Theatre in association with the Robsham Theater Arts Center on May 1, 2005, was a superb, remarkably well-produced, smartly staged, lively, colorful and full-bodied effort that was as good as anything I have seen in professional theater – and that’s saying a lot.
The credit for this achievement can be spread wide and deep I am sure, and it would start with Dr. Stuart J. Hecht, chair of the Department of Theatre at B.C.. But what is visible to the eye and audible to the ear, is what we focus on here because what was seen and heard was truly captivating.
First, the orchestra, under the direction of Ryan Taylor, was impressive. Thirteen pieces sounded like so much more. The orchestra hit every note, made every introduction and balanced its presentation such that the musicality of the piece never overwhelmed the singers on stage or failed to advance the story through smart direction when called for. Its sound was robust, full, deep and resonant throughout and a pleasure to the ear. Well done!
As those who follow live theater well know, one can never place too a high premium on lighting, and the lighting by Christopher Chambers, for this production, was superb. It was kaleidoscopic in its depth, meaning it touched every mood, embraced every scene with glowing color, changed within scenes and made smart use of the technique of spot lighting -- to both distract the eye when staging was being moved, and focus our attention on a central character when our focus was necessary. [See our Feedback article titled “The Art of Lighting Designers, They light up our Lives”] Lighting plays so important a role in setting the mood, that when it is done well, as it was here, it’s hard to imagine this production being staged any other way.
While the set design was sparse, it was economical and suited for the actions that occurred on stage. The criss-cross planks that straddled the stage provided a nice vehicle for effect. Characters could be placed high enough to be seen, both front and rear at the same time, and add dimension that might otherwise only be achieved with a raked stage. The use of props was also utilized effectively to help create and set each scene and give it its own space, and when coupled with the smart lighting, proved very effective. Well done!
The costumes by Jacqueline Dalley were colorful and time appropriate, and added immeasurably to the story being told. The outfitting of the Pirate, was Peter Pan/Captain Hook perfect and colorful, as was the colorful wardrobe of Voltaire, and the single buttocked Old Lady with the off-kilter wobbly rear end. Nice touches all around.
As noted there were many elements of this production that surprised and gave this performance such robust life.
All this would fall flat, however, if the performers weren’t up to par. This was not the case here. This cast not only sang superbly as an ensemble, but individually as performers, they soared, one right after the other.
Soprano Patricia Noonan, singing the role of Cunegonde, was truly impressive. She not only displayed good acting skills, and stage presence, but her voice was remarkably matured for a sophomore. Lacey Upton, singling the role of “The Old Lady” also displayed a remarkable versatility and uniqueness of tone in her singing, and it was hard to pin down her range – she seemed capable of singing in the lower alto or mezzo range, but spent so much of her time conjuring a wonderfully deep-throated, cynical, narrative style that it really didn’t matter. She was on time, in tune, and on the mark all the time. Her acting ability deserves high marks, for she pulled it all off without looking like a junior trying to play an Old Lady. She was the Old Lady. Great Job! This young woman has talent. Hats off also to Ali Bane, who sang the role of Paquette. Hers is a more delicate soprano: smooth, even and balanced. Like the others is this wonderful cast, she, too, displayed an ease of presence while on stage and sang her part with what seemed to be effortless perfection. Brava!
M Zach Bubolo, singing the role of Maximillian, the aristocratic brother, showed that he was not only a good sport, and had a solid flair for comedy, but he managed to pull it all off while maintaining a solid singing voice throughout. Matt Thompson, singing the lead role of Candide, has a pleasant and solid tenor voice that was called upon to sing a lot in this production. He sang well. His voice never tired, and he showed a good grasp of emotional range as his character went through the various stages of his life. Nicely done! Bryce Pinkham, senior, sang the role of Pangloss, the instructor, who, right up to his own end on the gallows, saw a good reason for things happening the way they did, gave a marvelous performance, too. He was animated, strong in voice and displayed a truly gifted sense of timing throughout. Kudos also must be shared with Christophger S. Tocco, who did a remarkable job as the narrator of the piece, Voltaire. Mr. Tocco gave a truly memorable performance throughout. A Theatre/Theology major, he fit right in as the sage, and through the wonderful intonations of his voice, captured the essence of his character beautifully and held the audience's attention in a compelling sort of way with relative ease.
I save Bryce Pinkham's most affectatious role as the Governor, for last. Mr. Pinkham’s character was wonderfully animated in a Captain Hook sort of way. He was funny, animated, displayed good stage presence and had a fine singing voice. His performance was nothing short of brilliant, especially as he sang "My Love" to Maximillian, thinking him one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen, and then singing "Bon Voyage" as he set the happless Candide and his crew off to sea to disappear in the vast ocean. [Note: in an earlier posting, I had misidentified this character as being played by the talented Ian Stoker-Long]
To mention all these characters and not mention others is to take nothing away from the fine performances that were the Hallmark of this production and the entire ensemble. This level of artistry from the Department of Theatre and its staff and students suggests a bright future is ahead for those of us who attend live theater. B.C. really did give us “the Best of All Worlds” with this winning performance of Leonard Bernstein's, Candide.