Sunday, July 8, 2012

Theatre review: "Candide" and more from Opera Theatre Pittsburgh-Sunday, 8th July 2012

Opera Theatre of Pittsburgh gives us all something to cheer and admire. It also presents something to lament: the summer lease has all too short a date, just three weeks, with only one remaining. The ongoing Summer Fest makes the most of the congeniality of Hillman Center for the Arts at Shady Side Academy in Fox Chapel. As you may have learned, three fully-staged operas and six miniatures are at the center of the activities. To learn more, your best option is to connect to http://www.otsummerfest/.

One of the big three is superbly-sung, cleverly played and staged Candide, often called “ an operetta.” This spins off from a 1974 version of 1956’s ill-fated Broadway premiere and features music by Leonard Bernstein with lyrics by various people over the years, here including some of the originals by Richard Wilbur along with more by brilliants Stephen Sondheim and John Latouche. With Hugh Wheeler’s revised, funnier book closer to Voltaire’s satire, it ran 22 months on Broadway and won five Tonys, in contrast to the first production’s awardless two months.

You’ll hear and see what justifies the acclaim and reputation accorded this, given uniformly magnificent singing, several wonderful character interpretations, filling out plenty of zippy business directed by consistently locally admired Scott Wise and remarkably adept playing by a 12-member orchestra led by Brent McMunn.

This means yet another opportunity to marvel at the richness and variety of Bernstein’s score, with its beauty, its fun and its sometimes send-up of others by such as Gounod, Rossini and Offenbach. And the finale, “Make Our Garden Grow” remains a beautiful, moving experience, realized to its fullest by this cast, including a great chorus.

On the opening night the orchestra, with only four string instruments, interestingly, came across in the Overture with an almost edgy tone, appropriate to the tale rather than as a more lush sound people might expect. At all times it remained equal to the tonal challenges.

Abigail Dueppen sparkled and shone as Cunegonde, her every note a gem, her every gesture and attitude just right for role of a vacuous bubble-head who triumphs adversity by not understanding what that word means. Joseph Gaines matched her with his adept singing and playing as Cunegonde’s equally superficial and sexually exploited brother Maximilian. Candide is played by Daniel Teadt. His singing left a marvelous impression, both tonally and in how he made the most of the lyrics, but he didn’t come across with much definition of the young man’s simple-minded innocence. Cross-dressing, counter tenor Andrey Nemzer has the big comic role of the old lady. Vocally, he hit all the right notes extremely well, but when he had dialogue the performer’s thick Russian accent muddied up almost every word, emphasizing the dragging quality of the second act, with a long tedious monologue, fewer memorable songs and a more plodding narrative. Center to the story is the foolish Dr. Pangloss, more an acting than a singing role. James Fitzgerald interpreted it capably but had none of the inherently funny, cartoonish qualities which would be consistent with how other characters are played and which director Wise’s conception calls for.

Wise came up with several imaginative touches, including strewing the stage with books which become furniture or weapons. And, when the main characters set sail across the ocean, their small ship lists to starboard when the fat Old Lady shifts her position.

Part of the Opera Theatre experiences includes six mini operas staged in a smaller adjacent venue. Each is by a different composer, each taking place in the same hotel room. I saw Bridal Suite featuring Dwayne Fulton’s music and a cast of 13 in a goofy gathering of women lamenting a bride’s being stood up at the alter. Fulton wrote gospel-like and opera sounding music, all sung with style and verve, Denise Sheffey-Powell made the most and best of the bride’s every note. Bridal Suite will be repeated next Sunday at 5 pm together with all of the other minis and a seven-piece orchestra.

It is preceded by the final performance of Candide, one of only two chances to catch it, the other is Friday July 13th. The Magic Flute and what’s called Carmen-The Gypsy, both wrap up on Saturday, July 14th.

What I’ve seen makes with me fervently hope that Opera Theatre’s Summer Fest thrives and endures, as a welcome part of our city’s performing arts scene.

More information is at and 412/326-9687

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