Satire meets serious singing: TOT's Candide l-r: Nicholas Borg as Pangloss, Tonatiuh Abrego as Candide and Patrick Bowman as Maximilian in Candide, Toronto Operetta Theatre, 2017. Photo: Gary Beechey.

Satire meets serious singing: TOT's Candide

Greg Finney

What better way is there to start of the New Year than with a break in the arctic temperatures and a trip to the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts to see Toronto Operetta Theatre’s annual holiday show? This year General Director Guillermo Silva Marin teamed up with Music Director Derek Bate to bring us Bernstein’s Candide.

Bernstein himself called Candide an operetta and drew the material from Voltaire’s classic Candide ou L’Optimisme. It’s a great piece that sees the characters, who are presented in a very cartoonish and satirical manner, journey around the world from Westphalia to El Dorado and back. The music is that wonderful New York musical theatre vibe sung with some serious singers with serious chops.

In his characteristic minimalist style, Silva Marin had a cast that switched characters, and a set that switched locales very frequently - a tough task to accomplish in a space like the Jane Mallett Theatre. This cast attacked the challenge head-on.

(l-r): Vania Chan (Cunegonde), Elizabeth Beeler (Old Woman) and Tonatiuh Abrego (Candide) in Candide, Toronto Operetta Theatre, 2017. Photo: Gary Beechey.

As the titular character Candide, tenor Tonatiuh Abrego sang with a strong, yet malleable tone which is a feat considering the character’s low tessitura. I found he handled patter very well and he was able to keep producing a solid tone while dropping some tricky lyrics. I did feel a bit of a disconnect with the character though; he could have used a little more of the bright, happy-go-lucky attitude that his name, and indeed the narrator (Voltaire himself) use to describe him. The soliloquy was delivered beautifully and I enjoyed his chemistry with Cunegonde.

Speaking of the Baron’s daughter, Cunegonde finds a body in the form of soprano Vania Chan. Chan was clearly the star of the show. Her comic timing was impeccable, and her delivery flawless. Her charm and grace were perfect for the wordly ingenue. The showpiece of the night, “Glitter and Be Gay” was the veritable showstopper you hoped it would be.

As the narrator Voltaire, Dr. Pangloss, and the Streetsweeper Martin baritone Nicholas Borg was a delight. Along with Chan, the two had the expressionistic style down to a tee. His voice was dark, rich and warm and he too handled the patter very well.

Rounding out the principal cast was Elizabeth Beeler in the role of the Old Woman. A comedic tour de force, I love watching Beeler on stage. Her ability to clown around while maintaining an elegance and grace is something I won’t tire of seeing any time soon. Her big number “I Am Easily Assimilated” was another showstopper - and hilarious to boot.

Elizabeth Beeler (Old Woman) in Candide, Toronto Operetta Theatre, 2017. Photo: Gary Beechey.

The supporting players were also hysterical. Patrick Brown playing the Baron’s gender-bending son, Maximillian, was a treat from start to finish. Ivy Spalding as Paquette was lovely and Edward Larocque as the Baron and Inquisitor was hilarious. I have to say that Cian Horrobin in the roles of the Gubernador/Vanderdendur/and Ragotski gave us some of the best singing I’ve heard him do and some of the best singing of the afternoon.

I felt that the design was a little at odds with the concept though. A blank stage with risers of varying heights created some interest in levels for the playing fields, but the costumes were either curated in a definite period or a mish-mash of whites and off-whites that were period non-specific and seemed to switch back and forth at random.

One of the pitfalls for Candide is the vast number of locales that the story takes place in. In this production, there seemed to be too many complete a vista scene changes, which kind of killed the pace for me - though the performers, particularly Borg, were quite adept at picking it back up.

(l-r): Elizabeth Beeler (Old Woman) an Vania Chan (Cunegonde) in Candide, Toronto Operetta Theatre, 2017. Photo: Gary Beechey.

There was also the choice for some characters to use dialects - dangerous territory when you’re already dealing with the pitfalls of Mid-Atlantic English pronunciation. I found the inconsistency of the dialects to be a bit distracting in the longer dialogue scenes, but the focus on great singing always brought you back home.

The orchestra under Maestro Bate were more than up to the challenge of Bernstein’s complex and layered score. I found at times the sound was a little too robust for being in an exposed pit and at times would cover the singers, particularly in some of the lower/patter phrases. Overall, though, the musicianship on display from both the pit and the stage, guided by Bate, is one of the reasons I’m proud to call myself a part of this scene in Toronto.

Candide is a great way to start off the New Year, and Toronto Operetta Theatre are a great group to spend it with. Check out their spring production of Offenbach’s delectable La Belle Hélène.

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