Long Beach Opera strives to make their seasons accessible and engaging, and the recent production of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide is a shining example of that commitment. Staged in the cozy Center Theater in Long Beach, the show brought out the best of Bernstein’s music and comedic farce.
Updating productions can be a tricky proposal. Many shows have dramatic scenes that rely on certain time periods to give the best context. Thankfully, Voltaire’s satire finds its home in any century as the book of Candide. Exploring the age old ideas of good and evil, the staging by David Schweizer allowed the audience to see the characters develop both during interactions and as independent individuals.
The set showed a minimalist approach, with a stage full of chairs and music stands, implying a rehearsal set to begin. The orchestra, tucked behind the stage, was under the capable direction of Kristof Van Grysperre. The whirlwind action begins at the opening overture with choreographed mayhem. As the cast members jockeyed for the best seats to impress the implied ‘casting director’ of Voltaire, one could feel the electricity build in the room. Each member of the ensemble did an excellent job of setting the parameters of their character. The audience would see these fine singers in both their ‘rehearsal’ setting and also in the opera characters, making great demands on the acting skills. All the members of the ensemble delivered to make the show a success.
Voltaire, played Robin Buck, led the group of actors and characters through a maze of philosophy. He brilliantly sets the stage by both narrating the story, and participating in the story. His use of physical props (glasses) to help delineate when he was Voltaire in the story was helpful to the audience. His plucky optimism was entertaining and contagious.
The organic set was enhanced by wonderful puppetry from the Rogue Artists Ensemble. Animals appeared as props. Shadow puppets developed into back drops. And the members of the ensemble moved seamlessly through the singers to develop set changes and lead audience members to the focal point of the staging. The stage seemed to be full and sparse at exactly the right moments thanks to their precision work.
Taking on the roles of the Baroness and the Old Lady, Suzan Hanson smoothly transitioned into her characters and brought laughs from the audience. Hanson’s costuming added quickly on stage enabled audience members to see her physical transformation into the characters. Danielle Marcelle Bond played Paquette and her other characters with a wonderful sense of bravado and coquettishness which enhanced the scenes she played.
The high demands for the role of Cunegonde were met by Jamie Chamberlin. Her bubbly interpretation and voice brought the audience to feel both joy and sympathy for her character. With the help of Zeffin Quinn Hollis and Arnold Livingston Geis playing suitors to Cunegonde, the aria “Glitter and Be Gay” made the audience erupt in laughter and applause for the sparkling high notes.
The strong female cast was well balanced with an incredibly talented male cast. Zeffin Quinn Hollis, Roberto Perlas Gomez and Arnold Livingston Geis brought camp to its highest art as they moved seamlessly through various characters. Of special note were Hollis’ Priest, who seduces Cunegonde, and the riotous Inquisitor who pontificated with a Southern accent.
As Candide, Todd Strange brought his full dramatic range and vocal prowess to light up the stage. Strange’s ability to bring high farce one moment and intimate vulnerability the next led to one of the most touching portrayals in the show. Memorable interpretations of “It Must be So” and “Nothing More than This” exuded humanity, beauty and simplicity in his singing and actions.
Long Beach Opera shows the audience once again that opera is at its essence about complex people and difficult relationships. With a strong ensemble cast, clever staging and set design, this company brings humanity and art together for an incredible show, perhaps even “the best of all possible worlds.”
Photos by Keith Ian Polakoff