Utah Symphony’s delightful “Candide” makes the best of all possible versions

Sat Nov 10, 2018 at 12:58 pm
By Edward Reichel

Amy Owens as Cunegonde and Jonathan Johnson in the title role of Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” in Friday night’s performance by the Utah Symphony. Photo: Kathleen Sykes

The Utah Symphony is closing out its year-long Leonard Bernstein centennial celebration with a semi-staged production of Candide. Joined by the Utah Opera Chorus and a strong cast of singer-actors under the baton of music director Thierry Fischer, Friday night’s performance was a delightful musical journey.

Trying to make sense of the story is nearly impossible. The musical, based on Voltaire’s novella of the same name, is a nonsensical adventure that takes the cast and audience through Europe and even to South America, without ever really trying to give any plausible explanation. It’s an absurdist romp, and this production, directed by Garnett Bruce, plays it for laughs and never takes itself too seriously, except for the finale, the moving “Make Our Garden Grow.”

Candide had a particularly painful genesis. Bernstein was never completely satisfied with it. He revised and reworked it numerous times since it was premiered on Broadway in 1956; the 1989 version that he recorded with the London Symphony received the composer’s blessing as the definitive version. Still, every time it’s performed it seems that it’s in a new version.

For this weekend’s performance, the Utah Symphony used the 2004 New York Philharmonic version. Created by stage director Lonny Price it stitches together an abridged version using bits and pieces from Hal Prince’s 1974 version, as well as the New York City Opera, Scottish Opera and part of the standard concert hall versions. It’s a hodgepodge for sure, but it does work.

Many of the singers in this cast took part in Candide with the Seoul Philharmonic that Fischer conducted in October. A late replacement for Salt Lake City was soprano Amy Owens, who replaced an ailing Lauren Snouffer as Cunegonde.

Owens, a former Utah Opera resident artist, showed the vocal brilliance to pull off the demands of her role. At Friday’s performance she sang her high notes effortlessly and gave a stunning rendition of the showstopper “Glitter and Be Gay.” She also showed remarkable acting talent, playing up the sassiness of her character wonderfully.

Thierry Fischer conducted Friday’s “Candide” performance. Photo: Kathleen Sykes

As Candide, Jonathan Johnson was equally up to the challenges of his role. His tenor, while light, still carried power in the ensembles, and his voice blended well with Owens’ in their duets. There was real chemistry between them that made their love for one another real. And Johnson’s acting was well above par as he convincingly portrayed this guileless character who never wavers in being optimistic about optimism.

One of the more memorable roles in Candide is the philosopher Dr. Pangloss who sees good in everything, which he expounds on in the song “Best of All Possible Worlds.” Baritone Hugh Russell gave a strong performance, played up Pangloss’s pomposity while deftly underscoring the silliness of his ideas. He was in fine form Friday in his solo numbers and in the ensemble pieces.

Tying everything together is actor Tobin Atkinson. Impersonating Voltaire, he narrated the action while occasionally being drawn into the story by the others. He has a huge speaking role, and Atkinson threw himself wholeheartedly into his part and gave a powerful performance.

Among the other cast members, baritone Mark Diamond as Maximilian, soprano Aleks Romano as Paquette and mezzo-soprano Victoria Livengood as the Old Lady deserve special mention for their performances. Livengood was especially wonderful as she pranced about trying to woo men with her elderly “charms.”

Rounding out the cast are Robert Breault, Grace Kahl, Melanie Ashkar, Addison Markor, Jesús Vicente Murillo and David Hanson, all playing several different characters.

Fischer and the Utah Symphony played with finely tuned precision and the Utah Opera Chorus once again showed its considerable corporate talents to impressive effect.

One inspired element of the semi-staging was a large screen at the back of the stage with a map that traces Candide’s wanderings providing a visual aid, as well as projecting the lyrics of the songs.

Candide will be repeated 5:30 p.m. Saturday in Abravanel Hall. utahsymphony.org. 801-355-2787.

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