Portland Opera’s ‘Candide’ has its soar points

The psychedelic balloon ride in Portland Opera's "Candide"/Photo: Cory Weaver

What the Beach Boys’ never-quite-realized Smile album was to the 1960s, Candide was to the preceding decade. Notoriously burdened since its 1956 birth by a clunky book — actually books, since it was revised so many times that most of Lillian Hellman’s original material vanished, depending on which version is staged — Candide seems to boast all the ingredients needed for a can’t miss show. Its source is a witty, durable classic that’s at least as relevant to today’s corrupt politics as it was to the  pre-deluge France that spawned Voltaire’s novel originally, or to the McCarthyite America that provoked the original operetta. Its fabulous score features some of Bernstein’s finest music (some of which swapped places with the tunes he was writing around the same time for the much more successful West Side Story). Its creative team comprised renowned contributors including Hellman, Richard Wilbur, Stephen Sondheim and Dorothy Parker, though not all at the same time.

And yet it’s never really worked — not in the 1956 original, nor a drastically compressed smaller scale ’70s revival, nor the most-often-staged 1982 version that Portland Opera artistic director Christopher Mattaliano’s adapted here, and maybe not even the 1989 reincarnation, which I haven’t seen but which contains Bernstein’s final thoughts (he worked on it not long before his death), and collects most of the music written for it in various versions over the years. (Even after that, still another interpretation followed a decade later.) Obviously, Candide has something — the music — that makes some of the most talented people in the theater try and try again to get it right. And it lacks something else that makes them generally fail.

That said, Candide is still worth seeing and hearing, in all its frustrating inglory.

We wanted to embed the opera’s own production montage video but were stymied by the Bernstein estate, so this will have to do.

Portland Opera’s adaptation of the 1982 version, which opened this weekend, loses some good songs from earlier incarnations, gains some others, switches the singers for still others and tries to sharpen the humor, yet still runs too long (almost three hours) for its picaresque story, which lacks much of a dramatic arc or any attempt at conventional character development. Nothing wrong with non-traditional stories per se, but that leaves the show dependent on too-often forced humor (some dated, some lame slapstick, some self-consciously arch lyrics) that usually works better in Voltaire’s witty recounting than onstage.

The staging and imagery — including a steeply raked stage, ingenious use of projections, plus a dazzling balloon scene with a truly psychedelic image — succeed pretty well, yet it all feels swallowed up in the capacious Keller’s vastness; I kept wondering how much better the show might have worked in the opera’s alternative venue, Portland Center for the Performing Arts’ more intimate Newmark Theater.

In fact, for this operetta, smaller in every sense would be better. I’d love to see a 75-or-so minute production that includes all the best music (maybe in shorter, punchier versions) and drops much of the labored dialogue and action, perhaps propelling most of the story via straight exposition from the original, using the Voltaire-like narrator who intermittently appears in some versions. But that would mean, yes, still another version of Candide, and I’m not sure the world will ever be ready for that.

Instead, while we can sigh impatiently at the intermittent patches of curiously leaden pacing and strained comedy, we can also revel in the funny sketches that do work, and the moments of joy we have onstage in Portland this week: a vividly compelling performance in the title role by tenor Jonathan Boyd, whose naive mien and strong yet never “operatic” singing perfectly suit the role and overcome the deadening venue; worthy dramatic contributions from Ann McMahon Quintero and Robert Orth, who were harder to hear (except when downstage or on the apron) but dramatically persuasive; a way cool psychedelic balloon scene, and those glorious songs: “What A Day for an Auto da Fe,” “I Am Easily Assimilated,” “Glitter and Be Gay” and “Make Our Garden Grow.” They’re worth the ticket.

The rest of the cast and production crew do a first rate job, including several who took on multiple roles, like Mark Thomsen as a philandering Latin governor (“My Love”) and the Dutch mayor (“Bon Voyage”). Rachele Gilmore made a credible Cunegonde, but it’s hard for anyone to live up to this:

How can someone not even five feet tall command a stage like that?

Candide continues at Portland’s Keller Auditorium Thursday and Saturday, May 17 and 19.

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