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Candide, Leonard Bernstein's operetta based on Voltaire's 1759 novella of the same name, has been adapted numerous times since its premier in 1956. The productions have vacillated along the spectrum sharing a closer kinship to an opera or musical in turn. The show has accumulated a strong and devoted following, and is known for its classic numbers, including Barbara Cook's signature aria, "Glitter and Be Gay."

The show is well beloved and accessible, particularly for those new to opera; it's based on a famous writing that portrays life with a smirk and a wink, and covers universal themes of love, loss, and self-confidence. Candide follows the titular character's journey from the baron's home he was raised in through his drafting into the Bavarian Army to his post-war journeys to Holland, Portugal, Spain, Montevideo, Paraguay, El Dorado, and finally Venice. He experiences heartbreak, hunger, death, and betrayal, but maintains the optimistic teachings of his mentor, Pangloss, and his love for his childhood sweetheart, Cunegonde.

Alas, the Washington National Opera's production of Candide, originally performed at the Glimmerglass Festival in 2015, is an overstuffed, self-conscious, slog. The many plot points feel simultaneously overdone and underutilized (think Pippin with less charm, Les Miserables with lower stakes, and History of the World Part I with less wit). The pacing of the show also feels off - the first few scenes felt rushed, but the rest of the play dragged - Candide's journey is too long and too incredulous to be enjoyable, and his devotion to the spoiled, vain Cunegonde feels so blindly misplaced that the audience is left actively hoping that, if this must be a love story, he find a new object of interest.

I hate to criticize this work so harshly, but that, perhaps, is part of the problem - it looked and felt like work. The cast made a valiant effort, but it was clear they were trying; performances often felt forced and self-serious. The humor was often heavy-handed and came with a sense of asking the audience, "get it?" rather than assuming them in on the joke. The philosophical aspects of the play and the social commentaries hold up well in modern times, but were handled with so little subtlety that I found myself heartily agreeing with the rowers in Act II who told Pangloss to shut up when he repeats his oft-cited theories of optimism that the show seems to actively disprove. There's a sense of self-consciousness that prevents the actors from letting go and fully inhabiting the play's world. One of the reasons Candide is so beloved is that the play is considered to be tongue-in-cheek. But with such a serious portrayal, the humor and spirit of the show are lost.

There is a number toward the end of the show in which Martin, the group pessimist (though he feels more of a realist), tells everyone to stop questioning the greater meaning in their lives and to specifically stop complaining about their lot - he informs them all that life is difficult, but their complaints make it unbearable. The whole song, though, feels like a meta-reference to the show itself, and in that moment I related more heartily with Martin than any other character I've seen on stage in recent memory.

This isn't to say the whole production is miserable. The cast is full of talented performers who might have been more enjoyable in a different capacity - the two female leads were regulated to a surprisingly high register that showed their skills but prevented the audience from truly appreciating their voices. The costumes were wonderfully imaginative and beautifully done - I especially appreciated the contrast of the ensemble's white outfits and the red lining on the military coats to portray the post-battle carnage. The sheep from El Dorado were particularly clever (their knitting was one of the show's highlights), and the actresses who played them easily stole the too few scenes in which they were present. And a joke about lawyers will almost always play well, particularly in Washington, DC. But these little delights can't quite atone for the production's original sins: injecting far too much self-importance and taking itself far too seriously.

Candide is playing at the Kennedy Center through May 26.

Photo Credit: Scott Suchman

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