This Is Who We Are #10: Austin Lyric Opera's Candide
A daily affirmation of Austin's creativity from the Chronicle archive
By Robert Faires,
11:00AM, Tue. May 19, 2020
Our ability to experience art in person and with others is presently in lockdown, and we don't know when it will return, if ever. Local artists are already adapting to this situation – many sharing art online – which speaks to Austin's driving spirit of creativity. In tribute to that spirit, this series recalls past works that affirm our creative force.
This is who we are.
From Jan. 21, 2000:
CandideBass Concert Hall
We all come into this world as innocents. Every one of us begins our journey through life assuming the best about people and what life has to offer. It is only when we have encountered enough pain and disappointment, enough deception and hatred and cruelty, that we grow a hard shell of suspicion and expect less than kindness and compassion from our fellows and the world. For that reason, we should sympathize with Candide, Voltaire's innocent of innocents, who learns that ours is not "the best of all possible worlds" through a particularly nasty series of encounters with hardship: rejection by his family, exile from his homeland, separation from his beloved, her rape and apparent murder, threats of torture, actual torture, a shipwreck, religious persecution, a few natural disasters, fraud, another shipwreck, ridicule, and bad advice. Extreme differences in degree aside, we've all been in his shoes.
Our kinship to poor Candide could be felt most keenly in the recent Austin Lyric Opera production of Candide. Despite the epic level of absurdity in his adventures, with catastrophe heaped upon misfortune piled upon calamity, and despite our hero's monumental naïveté and foolishly persistent optimism, the production's heart was very much human-sized. The show never flattened the innocent into a cartoon to be mocked or lost the sense of personal cost in all his many travails.
This is no small achievement. On the stage, Candide's odyssey careers wildly not just from exotic locale to exotic locale (all realized here in fantastic electric-hued projected images by Jerome Sirlin), but from mood to mood. One minute it's all bawdy gags as Candide and Cunegonde discover the joy of sex, the next it's a grim sentence of exile, with Candide forlornly striving to comprehend this cruel turn of fate. Tender ballads give way to black satire, which shifts abruptly to stark drama, which tumbles without warning into slapstick. Negotiating the many sudden tonal changes while sustaining an emotional throughline that allows the narrative to build and pay off is one of the great challenges of the musical version of Candide.
Stage director Christopher Mattaliano met the challenge by keeping his staging simple, letting his performers work (and play), allowing each scene its own mood, and keeping a tight focus on the abiding sincerity of the hero. The movement was often as spare as Robert Orth stepping into a spotlight to deliver Voltaire's pithy narrative observations -- perhaps not that stimulating visually, but then Mattaliano was blessed with performers who could stand on a corner of the expansive Bass stage and stimulate all its 3,000 patrons in all kinds of ways. Orth did it with a marvelously droll presence -- a piercing look that skewered subjects and a dry, peppery voice that turned them slowly on a spit and broiled them. Scott Schroeder, in a host of cameos, did it with robust physical comedy, waddling fussily here, gesticulating floridly there, exposing folly through man's body. Susan Nicely did it with a lusty brio in attitude and voice, giving us an Old Lady who could take on all the young bucks in Cadiz with her single buttock tied behind her back. And Cheryl Parrish, ALO's radiant Cunegonde, did it with a deft comedic touch and a voice as warm and round as resplendent as the pearls she donned in "Glitter and Be Gay," the signature piece which Parrish delivered with cascading laughter and effervescent delight. One could hardly ask for better traveling companions on such a trip.
John McVeigh's Candide was our North Star on this journey, the fixed point of light always guiding our way. No matter what country or circumstance he ended up in, his Candide was ever true to his heart, Cunegonde. Characters of such purity often come off as simpletons, but McVeigh expressed Candide's complexity through Leonard Bernstein's magnificently rich music, which glows with a range of emotional colors. Every step along Candide's long way, McVeigh painted the air with those vivid hues, always keeping us mindful of the character's humanity. Because of that, the show's majestic conclusion, "Make Our Garden Grow," had the resonance it calls for. If this is not the best of all possible worlds, it is still a world we can live in. The soaring chorus lifted us to where we could catch a glimpse of heaven; the heaven in a loaf of bread, the heaven in a home.