Opera Company of Middlebury 2021-22 Review: ‘Candide’

By Chris Ruel
(Photo: Opera Company of Middlebury)

Opera Company of Middlebury’s utterly delightful streaming production of Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide,” originally broadcast in June 2021, is back for a few more days, and viewable on OCM’s YouTube channel through Mar. 1, 2022.

Don’t miss it.

The pandemic was the mother of innovation. And OCM created the best of all possible worlds (wink, wink) with this glittering gem. Most times, the camera work rivals that of big houses, and then some. When was the last time you’ve seen a camera-fitted drone flying around the Met’s pit and stage? I’ll guess never, but based on how OCM incorporated spectacular drone footage from inside the theater, New York’s behemoth has some catching up to do.

High-quality projections and brilliant trompe l’oeil abound, creating realistic sets that combined digital backdrops and physical props. OCM’s no-fear approach to experimentation, paid off in this imaginative production that never takes itself seriously: we catch glimpses of backstage action, a ground-based camera follows the drone, tracking it while it hovers like a dragonfly over the socially distanced orchestra, and the artists often break character when interacting with the meandering narrator. All of it done purposefully to serve the comedy.

Experimentation Pays Off

Director and Set Designer Douglas Anderson, stated in the program notes, “Orson Welles … said something to the effect that he was much more interested in experimentation than success. Our Candide is an experiment — over six months of working way beyond our comfort zone — and we’d love to hear if you think we’ve succeeded.”

You succeeded.

Anderson added, “We have a sneaking suspicion that even after Town Hall Theater re-opens, we might want to use online video for key projects.”

Please do.

The production’s creative team, led by executive producer Mary Longey, took the comedic gold inherent in Voltaire’s ribald critique, and upped the ha-ha factor. I laughed out loud frequently, causing my wife to give me curious side-glances. Ingeniously, OCM brought in Vermont’s former Governor, Jim Douglas, to play the role of the grandfatherly Narrator. Douglas’ storyteller has penchant for tangents, “irritating” those onstage, who with rolls of eyes, ask him to kindly move along with the story. Douglas possessed a keen sense of comedic timing and was a highlight of the show as he read in an oversized leather club chair from a storybook, and addressed the audience directly.

Music director Michael Sakir led a fresh and playful performance, grounding the comedy on Bernstein’s unforgettable melodies. Sakir’s band was spot on the entire show, and the closeups and drone shots of the instrumentalists lent the production an intimate and immersive feel. (Like a friend, the drone literally escorts you into the Town Hall Theater.)

Singing artists included smooth sounding tenor Quinn Bernegger in the title role of the picaresque tale, the impressive baritone Joshua Jeremiah as Candide’s lecherous tutor, Dr. Pangloss, whose physics “lesson” leads the naïve boy to put into practice his newfound knowledge. This he does with the lovely and very willing Cunegonde, played by soprano Cree Carrico, whose takeaway number, “Glitter and Be Gay,” was superbly sung. Rounding out the principal cast was the robust-sounding mezzo-soprano Tara Curtis as the Old Lady. In comprimario roles, bass-baritone Blake Jennings sang the role of Maximillian, mezzo-soprano Heather Jones that of Paquette, tenor Joshua Collier as Governor, Vanderdendur, and Croupier, and Kian Freitas as Captain, Martin, and Cook. The show was well cast, with all singing-actors adding their personal touches to the raucous satire whether in a principal or supporting role.

The Best of All Possible Worlds (During a Pandemic)

OCM produced “Candide” using strict COVID-mitigation protocols. All orchestra members wore masks, while wind and brass players played behind plexiglass, also in masks but with openings for mouthpieces. The ensemble was recorded two weeks after the orchestra, and divorced from both was the staging, but with the magic of cinematic special effects and advanced audio technology, the parts were seamlessly welded into a captivating whole.

OCM has something exciting going on, and it’ll be interesting to see what comes next after taking in the lessons from their first full-length digital offering. Not all of it was perfect, but perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of good, and OCM’s “Candide” falls squarely in between the two—which places it solidly within the realm of great.



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