Bernstein’s Candide has always been overshadowed by his other major theatrical work of the period, West Side Story. A major part of this has been due to Candide rather awkwardly straddling the line between musical and operetta - showpiece arias like “Glitter and be gay” stand with any bel canto aria in technical virtuosity, but the huge swathes of spoken text present their own challenges as well. Throw in a complicated, surreal plot and a multitude of minor characters, and Candide represents a truly unique challenge for any opera house.

Alek Shrader © Peter Schaaf
Alek Shrader
© Peter Schaaf

Fortunately, the Vancouver Symphony fielded a near-ideal cast for a series of concert performances. The title role was taken by American tenor Alek Shrader, fresh from a string of high-profile engagements in San Francisco, New York, and Toronto. Though Shrader first came to attention for the high bel canto roles of Donizetti and Rossini, his voice has now developed into a full lyric – as such, he was ironically at his best in the lower reaches of the role. His legato remains impeccable as always, and his impassioned performance of “Nothing more than this” was heartrending. Shrader’s voice was beautifully contrasted to Tracy Dahl’s crystalline soprano. Despite having been performing internationally for over 30 years, her coloratura soprano remains agile and mercifully free of the mannerisms that affect other divas. More importantly, Dahl is an adept comedienne, suggesting Cunegonde’s flighty gaucherie without turning into a parody.

The show was stolen, however, by Judith Forst as the Old Lady. Having made her career in lyric mezzo roles and then become equally celebrated in roles like Herodias, Klytemnestra, and Mme de Croissy, Forst now can add comedy to her significant range of skills. From her first entrance in a daringly slow and seductive “I am easily assimilated” to her mock tragedienne poses in “Quiet!”, Forst’s bravura acting was always complemented by her astoundingly well-preserved mezzo. Nearly her equal in charisma was baritone Richard Suart as Pangloss, who deftly interspersed the spoken text with references to everything from Canadian politics to FIFA presidents that had the audience in stitches. The many small roles were performed by members of the UBC Opera Ensemble, who uniformly sang with a confidence and professionalism that belied their age. Bramwell Tovey led the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra in a spirited performance that was more Mahlerian lushness than Mozartian elegance. Though this at times threatened to overpower the singers, there was no denying the euphoria of hearing the whole orchestra, chorus, and soloists in the powerful “Make our garden grow”.