'Candide' is a triumphant conclusion to ECSO campaign

On any day, consider the emetic mildly described as "global news." Ugh.

One sincerely hopes ours is not the best of all possible worlds — despite assertions to the contrary by the 18th-century philosopher/mathematician Gottfried Leibnitz. What is true, though, is that, for three hours Saturday night in New London's mostly-full Garde Arts Center, Earth became a much better place.

The occasion was a pyrotechnic production of Leonard Bernstein's "Candide" by the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra with the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Chorus and the Yale Opera. The work, conceived by Bernstein and Lillian Hellman and originally produced on Broadway in 1956, is based on Voltaire's novella of the same name — a satire in reaction to Leibnitz's smiley-face Optimism (with a capital "O") in the face of a blood-red panoply of natural disaster and blithe exercises in man's inhumanity to man.

Bernstein and Hellman thought Voltaire's painfully sharp humor might provide a bit of a tonic since things on our planet hadn't improved appreciably by the mid-20th century (or, for that matter, now). Nuancing these motifs, the libretto to "Candide" undergoes almost continual tinkering by a variety of esteemed writers. Bernstein, on the other hand, seems — through his brilliant and almost giddy mosaic of opera, classical, operetta, musical theater, Eastern European folk, and even pop — to have created in "Candide" a unique musical form.

The story details Candide, an idealistic young man who endures a relentless onslaught of horrible events as he travels to find his true love, Cunegonde, whose own experiences are unspeakably dark. As pushed along by the Voltaire-like emcee — a shape-shifting figure known as both Dr. Pangloss and the Narrator — the story arc might be described as Job if he joined the cast of "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" as written by Monty Python and Pol Pot.

On Saturday, Shimada and the ensemble performed in empathetic fashion, negotiating the quilt-work score with poise, wit and an appreciation for dynamics, mood, tension — and in full celebration of Bernstein's 100th birthday. As Shimada, who proudly studied under The Master, jokingly told The Day last fall, "He ordered me to do (this production) from heaven."

Shimada's joyful body language is tempered by the sort of restraint you'd see in an exuberant kid who's frequently but affectionately told by his parents to calm down. Sometimes, though, it's fun when his glee squirms through. This happened toward the end of the production, when the whole house happily realized Shimada and companies had tamed the great beast — and had a helluva good time doing it.

This was not a stage production in terms of costumes, dialogue and choreography. Principals from the Yale Opera, which is directed by Shimada, sat at the lip of the stage, rising to sing their parts, and essentially finessed their roles with facial expressions, body language, and a simple prop or two.

In the title role, tenor Luis Aguilar relied on his honey-flow tone and delivery. His versions of "It Must Be So" and "Nothing More Than This" — two superbly elegant and sophisticated ballads — were powerful inunderstated elegance. Baritone Zachary Johnson (Dr. Pangloss/Narrator) delivered his skeletally connective dialogue with dry humor. And it's not Zachary's fault that "Candide's" least interesting melodies belong to Pangloss; Johnson's tone was rich and mostly powerful.

The "star turns" in "Candide" belong to soprano Cundegone and contralto The Old Lady. As the former, Jessica Pray displayed indomitable spirit even at her character's lowest point, and the sweet, clear quality of her voice did not preclude the linguistic gymnastics required of the "Glitter to Gay" coloratura. Pray inspired gasps and "wows" from the crowd with her seemingly effortless prance through a piece Bernstein might've composed to prove he could. Sarah Saturnino's Old Lady was playful, teasing and cocky throughout. Her "I am Easily Assimilated" was smile-inducing, and the sparkled-harmony duets with Gray were intuitively and beautifully delivered.

Also from Yale, Alexandara Urquiloa, Matthew Cossack and Fidel Angel Romero were solid in supporting roles, and it's well worth noting that the 80-voice ESCO Chorus, in the emotional final performance by director Mark Singleton, handled a variety of complex and structurally ambitious parts with precision and gusto.

It's probably best Shimada and the ECSO have a few months to rest and re-energize. "Candide" is going to be hard to top.

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