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If you read the news these days, it’s easy to see the metaphorical glass as half-empty. Stories about war, natural disasters, religious conflict, and political turmoil can put a person in a pretty sour mood. Perhaps the way to cure this is to fully embrace optimism by sitting in a theater for two-and-a-half hours and taking in a show dedicated to that specific concept. While Washington National Opera’s production of Candide might not completely eliminate the cloud of existential dread hovering over D.C., it’s still a perfectly pleasing and very funny reflection of life’s ups and downs.
This production of Candide is presented as part of the Kennedy Center’s Leonard Bernstein at 100 celebration, and director Francesca Zambello has rightfully put the emphasis on the Washington National Opera Orchestra and Bernstein’s lush, soaring score. As contemporary musical theater composers opt to pare down orchestrations, it’s refreshing to hear this opera-musical hybrid backed by dozens of musicians. The classically trained vocalists have the pipes to sing over them.
The approachable music and familiar story, based on Voltaire’s satirical short novel, make this an ideal production for opera newbies. It’s sung in English and full of silly jokes, so it feels less stuffy than the French and Italian tragedies one normally associates with the genre.
We meet the titular hero (Alek Shrader) in Thunder-ten-Tronckh, Germany, where he, the illegitimate son of the baron’s sister, studies with his cousins, the vain and shallow Cunegonde (Emily Pogorelc) and the dull but jealous Maximilian (Edward Nelson), under the tutelage of Dr. Pangloss (Wynn Harmon). Pangloss espouses a philosophy of optimism, ensuring his pupils that they live in “the best of all possible worlds,” an idea that Candide fully embraces. A kiss with Cunegonde gets him banned from the castle and sets him off on a series of adventures across multiple continents. Along the way, he encounters war, torture, and earthquakes, tragedies that would shake the faith of a lesser man, and yet he still, somewhat dopily, persists until he gets what he wants.
It’s clear that the cast is having fun with roles that force them to perform physical comedy. Shrader projects Candide’s shock, horror, and slight self-satisfaction when he accidentally kills one of Cunegonde’s suitors, a feat that’s not easy in a venue that seats more than 2,300, and Pogorelc distills Cunegonde’s essence—that she’s hungry for money and men—in a lively rendition of “Glitter and Be Gay.” Hamming it up the most is D.C. native and opera icon Denyce Graves as the Old Lady, who serves Cunegonde and is missing a buttock. Graves, who’s stolen the Opera House stage plenty of times before, has developed the perfect uneven gait of someone missing half their ass.
The story itself feels timeless—trying to make sense of all the challenges life presents is eminently relatable—but Zambello has added in a few winks to contemporary pop culture. When the Old Lady meets Cacambo (Frederick Ballentine), Candide’s mixed-race servant, she acknowledges him by crossing her arms in an X across her chest. Yes, the Wakanda salute is alive and well in Candide’s world.
Speaking of pop culture reference points, the set design appears to be inspired by the spare, multi-tiered wooden structures soon to be seen on the Opera House stage when Hamilton comes to town. Even the ensembles of both shows, decked out in beige underclothes, dress similarly. Is it derivative? Maybe. Does it allow for quick changes of scene? Most definitely.
This lighter style of opera seems to suit the Washington National Opera and its audiences. Candide still features the drama of disease and lost love that one would find in La traviata, but delivers it with a wink instead of a sob. Bernstein’s somber moments sound even better as a result. When the characters, after traveling around the world, reunite to sing “Make Our Garden Grow,” it’s enough to make one believe that amid chaos and disaster, there’s a reason to remain optimistic.
To May 26 at the Kennedy Center Opera House, 2700 F St. NW. $45–$275. (202) 467-4600. kennedy-center.org.