Atlanta Opera’s ‘Candide’ Reflects Modern Political Era
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Atlanta Opera’s ‘Candide’ Reflects Modern Political Era

Leonard Bernstein comic operetta was meant to reflect the politically charged time in which it was produced.

The Atlanta Opera’s production features (from left): Craig Irvin as Maximillian; Victor Ryan Robertson as the Baron; Deb Bowman as The Baroness; and Deanna Breiwick as Cunegonde // Photo Courtesy of Rafterman
The Atlanta Opera’s production features (from left): Craig Irvin as Maximillian; Victor Ryan Robertson as the Baron; Deb Bowman as The Baroness; and Deanna Breiwick as Cunegonde // Photo Courtesy of Rafterman

The Atlanta Opera reached back to the mid-1950s for its latest project, Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide.” The lovely production at the Cobb Energy Center mixes a satiric look at life with some of Bernstein’s most appealing modern melodies.

The show was based on the French writer, Voltaire’s, “Candide: Optimism,” a short novel, first published in 1759, that sets out to skewer the mid-18th century optimistic philosophical notion that we live in the best of all possible worlds. In this fast-paced production, Bernstein and his original collaborator, Lillian Hellman, follow Voltaire, taking on the subject of corruption in the church and society, war, philosophy and philosophers with more than a few witty lines. But Tomer Zvulun, the Atlanta Opera’s general and artistic director, meant it to have a more modern bite.

“When you think about it, here’s Leonard Bernstein writing after World War II and the Holocaust in the middle of McCarthyism. It’s this operetta satirizing optimism. You know, we’re dealing with so many difficulties and challenges today and it’s almost like history repeats itself. And it feels like ‘Candide,’ now more than ever, is very, very relevant.”

“Candide” is Leonard Bernstein’s and Lillian Hellman’s operetta set in the mid-18th century.

To keep the show moving and to minimize the many scene changes, director Allison Moritz has created a basic stage set that echoes the Globe Theatre of Shakespeare’s day, A twin staircase stretches across the back of the stage with an archway in the middle. Performers enter and exit by the staircase and the opening at its center with just a few props and an occasional piece of furniture to set the stage.

It helps to manage the large number of performers who come and go during the largely episodic structure of the play. It’s a challenging work that, as Moritz notes, is no match for Bernstein’s “West Side Story,” which followed on Broadway in 1957.

“’Candide,’ which is much more episodic and follows many more characters, was just more challenging, too, to have audiences connect with,” Moritz said. “They loved the tunes, but they didn’t always understand or engage with the story on the same level that people did with ‘West Side Story.’ I think that was constantly a frustration and it’s one of the reasons we have so many different versions of ‘Candide.’”

Atlanta Opera’s artistic and executive director Tomer Zvulun, who was born in Israel, has put together a season this year that is a mix of musical genres.

When it debuted in 1956, it was Bernstein’s valentine to the operettas, or light operas, of the previous 100 years. He called it a “comic operetta.”

Zvulun, who was born in Israel, sees it as part of a strategy of meeting audiences where they are; not only meeting them in terms of their musical tastes, and sometimes meeting them in spaces that are not always traditional. That was particularly the case last year when the Atlanta Opera presented its sold-out production of “Cabaret,” which was set in Nazi Germany of the 1930s and presented the setting in the former rail repair depot at Pullman Yards on Atlanta’s Eastside.

“‘Candide’ continues what we’ve done very successfully last year at Pullman Yards, which completely sold out. In previous years, we’ve done ‘Sweeney Todd,’ ‘West Side Story,’ and ‘Pirates of Penzance.’ So, shows that are extremely popular straddle the world of shows that are straddling the worlds of opera and musical theater. They bring a lot of new audiences. When we did ‘Cabaret’ last year, 50 percent of our audience was new to the opera,” he said.

Both Bernstein and his original Jewish collaborator, Hellman, saw the work as a comment not only of the world that existed in Voltaire’s day, but in the America of their own time, particularly the activities of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the tactics of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee.

Hellman had been a strong supporter of anti-Fascist and anti-Nazi efforts in the 1930s. When she was summoned to the HUAC hearings in 1952, she refused to answer any of their questions about her political beliefs if she was required to name the names of any of her associates. She was famously quoted as saying, “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.”

When Candide debuted in 1956, the so-called Red Scare that Hellman challenged was in decline and Sen. McCarthy died the following year. Still, Broadway audiences in the 1950s weren’t quite ready for Bernstein’s comic operetta.

Although it had a successful run in the mid-1970s, the show faded, its first time out, after 74 performances.

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