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Happy is the occasion when a production exceeds the sum of its parts;
perplexing and frustrating is Festival Opera's "Candide," with some
splendid elements, but a yawning hole where its heart should be.  The
theater was physically and emotionally cold - not much over 60 degrees
and little likelihood of caring about the characters.

The production opening in Walnut Creek tonight featured a brilliant
orchestral performance, under Michael Morgan's baton, something far above
what one expects in a small regional house.  Bernstein's music sounded
sparkling and enchanting in turn, near-flawless and well-balanced.

On stage: Marnie Breckenridge's major-league Cunegonde with a knockout
"Glitter and Be Gay," even against the director's determined efforts to
sabotage the singer - forcing audience laughter in all the wrong places.
Isaac Hurtado's beautiful lyric voice carried the day in the title role,
even if the tenor's acting is on the wooden side.  Rebecca Garcia's
Paquette and Darla Wiggington's Old Lady were theatrically winning.

Beyond individual performances, the issue about the evening is the hole
in the whole.  A few months back, The Lamplighters performed "Candide"
in Herbst Theater with manic energy running through the production that
gave wings to the work.  In stark contrast, Festival Opera tonight
supplied no oomph, cohesion, focus, collective firepower.

With unnecessary and unwise completeness (restoring perhaps half an
hour's worth of material routinely cut elsewhere), awkward pauses, lack
of continuity, and a slow, enervated Voltaire/Pangloss (David Cox), this
was an evening of appreciating bits and pieces, but not being engaged
between the high points.

Michael Scarola's stage direction (on Frederic O.  Boulay's production,
designed by Matthew Antaky) is busy, rather than energetic.  Between the
three men, some "good ideas" came to play, but inevitably overdone.  If
you put letters on the backs of the chorus (vocally in poor form tonight)
to spell out "overture" at the beginning, that's mildly funny, but if
the spelling trick continues endlessly, that's not good, making the
audience watch formations instead of paying attention to the work.  If
you have the principals go into the audience, that may be OK, but if you
make them waste time by wading through rows, like obnoxious circus clowns,
what's the point of that?

A major offense in Scarola's direction (besides the failure to pull the
piece together) is what appears to be gross insensitivity to the music.
He insists on having the singers engage in "comic" shticks during their
arias and duets, provoking audience noise (laughter, applause) that
interferes with the music - the attempt to spoil "Glitter and Be Gay"
was just one instance among many.  It's fine to make a big production
number from the hilarious "I Am Easily Assimilated," but consistently
stepping on the music is the last thing one expects from a director.

Janos Gereben/SF
www.sfcv.org
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