For the seventy-third season of the Lowell House Opera (LHO), the staff has chosen Candide by Leonard Bernstein, Harvard ’39. Opening a week ago, performances continue on March 30, 31, and April 2. The venue is the House dining hall, whose resplendent chandeliers, high ceilings and narrow stage and patron seating surprisingly provide a comfortable, if cramped, space for the oper(etta)s.
Lowell House Opera, which advertises itself as the oldest continuing performing opera company in New England, was established in 1938. It has performed Bernstein operas previously, but never Candide. I was told that Bernstein, in fact, was a resident of Lowell House as an undergraduate.
As most of you know, Candide has gone through many revisions. Originally Lillian Hellman and Bernstein collaborated on the book, lyrics, and music one summer on Martha’s Vineyard, and the first performance was in 1956. But Hugh Wheeler rewrote the book in 1973, which was more faithful to Voltaire’s novel. Over the years, contributors to the lyrics included John LaTouche, Richard Wilbur, Dorothy Parker, and Stephen Sondheim. LHO performed the adaptation by Wheeler. It has been seen in such diverse locations as Broadway, New York City Opera, London’s Royal National Theatre, and by the New York Philharmonic, which speaks to the wide popularity it enjoys.
Major changes in the management and musical leadership have taken place this year at Lowell House Opera. It made a concerted effort to increase Harvard undergraduate participation in the opera by holding open auditions publicized widely to the Harvard community, as well as throughout the Boston music community. For the first time in many years, there were two undergraduates and four post-graduates singing principal roles. In addition, this year, Aram Demirjian, Harvard ’08, replaced Channing Yu ’93 as music director, and his father, Ara, played violin in the orchestra. Aram conducted a spirited and lively performance and the orchestra, except for a few slip-ups here and there and some pitch issues among the ensemble, was more than up to the task.
Stage director Erin Huelskamp made effective use of the dimensions of the Lowell House dining room with a set of revolving doors rear stage and platforms on the sides to create levels of activity without giving too much of an impression of cramped space. The lighting was effective, and there were super-titles for the lyrics. Some of the young performers at the opening performance had a tendency to rush their spoken lines, so super-titles for the spoken dialogue would have been helpful, too.
We are all familiar with the dizzy and often sophomoric plot which twists and turns from place to place and time to time as Candide and Cunegonde come to realize that their search for the “Best of all possible worlds” — where everything that happens in life must be for the best — is far from realistic, and that the recipe for a happy and tranquil life is to return to a simple bucolic farm life and cultivate their garden.
The leads alternate from performance to performance. We were fortunate to hear Liv Redpath, a Harvard freshman, as Cunagonde and James Onstad ’09 as Candide. Redpath has a glorious, strong and secure voice, on point, and is a fine young actress. She was outstanding in the aria “Glitter and Be Gay,” one of the most challenging coloratura arias. There are three high E-flats and numerous high C’s which she breathed through without a hitch, and with a comic flair. We shall hear much of her in the future. Onstad has a sweet tenor voice, with almost an Irish tenor quality and gave convincing performances in all his arias, especially “Nothing More Than This” and “It Must Be Me.” Anna Maria Ugarte, playing the part of Old Lady for the full run, stole the show with her dialect, her comic acting, and her wonderful and funny renditions of “I Am Easily Assimilated” and “We Are Women,” a comic duet with Cunagonde.
Megan Bisceglia was a torchy Paquette, Ralph Garcia was a convincing Governor and Ragotsi, and Anthony Garza, the ever-present Pangloss, did particularly well in the patter singing his part requires. The chorus was full-throated and did especially well in the opening “Westphalia Chorale” and the hilarious and riotous “Auto-da-Fe.”
All in all, an enjoyable evening with a cast and orchestra that are really enjoying themselves. It is only on for three more performances and is well worth the trip to Harvard Square to hear young vocalists and students perform a work that they really enjoy and understand.
Robert Stanley Blacklow, MD, a former Lowellian and current teacher and researcher at Harvard Medical School, took part on a performance of The Threepenny Opera more years ago than he is now willing to admit. He has secretly pined to play Pangloss for many years.