Candide, Trump and Us

By Rafaela Prifti Kondi

(Photos: Sarah Shatz)

Although separated by over 200 hundred years on a calendar, Candide, Trump and us have fatefully crossed paths in January 2017. It is believed that Voltaire regarded “Candide’ as a work of far less influence than his voluminous body of publications on philosophy, history, religion and education. No one would be more surprised than the philosopher of the Age of Enlightenment to see after 258 years Candide’s Optimism still entertains and inspires audiences around the world. Browsing through the history of the frequent productions and revivals, it becomes clear to me that the relentless optimist has never been too far from the stage. Whether performed in Paris, or produced by the National Royal Theater, conceptualized as a Broadway musical, even presented as an operetta, the hero takes the audiences away on a tumultuous journey alike life and leaves them thinking.

As it happens I rediscovered Candide when my daughter was given a school assignment on French thinkers and the much studied topic of human condition. Arguably, the Enlightenment in France might be summarized in one name VOLTAIRE. The witty and progressive mind of the most notable French illuminists saw it fit to write a satirical book where he mocks Leibniz’s metaphysical philosophy summarized in the expression ‘all is for the best, where he spares no whips towards religion, governments, armies. Chapter by chapter, the hero who once lived a happy sheltered life in ‘the best of all possible worlds’ (sounds familiar?) is thrown out of his Utopian land and into ravished places where he experiences the worst that humanity has to offer. Candide struggles to hold on to the teachings of his mentor, Dr. Pangloss while persistently pursuing his love for the lovely Cunegonde.

Incidentally, soon after reading the novella, I stumbled upon a poster of New York City Opera announcing extended performances through mid-January. Immediately I thought of one good reason why the added shows. Some optimism might be helpful as the inauguration day approaches. With the start of Trump’s presidency, I join Candide’s tormented state of mind in questioning: “Is this the best of all possible worlds? Is it all for the best?”

I hurried to get the tickets at Jazz at Lincoln Center. From the reviews on the printed press, I gathered that the Harold Prince-New York City Opera 1982 production was revived at the Rose Theater. As the overture sounds playing, I find myself familiar with it. Indeed, it is the most popular piece of Leonard Bernstein performed by an orchestra. Undoubtedly, the music is an undisputable quality of the production. The set design is cleverly flexible and at the same time modern, the choreography is rationed and the time-costumes from Portugal, Spain are a true delight. The two-act comic operetta features a cast that  includes Gregg Edelman as Voltaire/Dr. Pangloss and various characters, Jay Armstrong Johnson as Candide, Linda Lavin as the Old Lady, Meghan Picerno as Cunegonde, Keith Phares Maximilian, Jessica Tyler Wright as Paquette. While Voltaire himself is inserted as the narrator in the operetta, my daughter points out that “the storybook does not stray too far from the original’. The four young people from Westphalia, Cunegonde, the Baron’s daughter, her brother, Paquette, the maid and Candide, the bastard cousin, are thrown in all corners of the world at one point or another. Their personal accounts are interpreted through musical songs such as Glitter and Be Gay, I am easily Assimilated, Life is Happiness, It must be Me, To the New World etc. which embody the Voltairean poignant humor and irony. Spectated by a sold-out theater, the performers act behind the rows, between the aisles, and even up in the boxes, which contributes to a comical quality of the operetta. The references of real historical events (such as the Seven Year War) merge with the absolute horrors experienced by Candide and his companions, whose relentless optimism is seriously shaken throughout the ordeals. In the end the four youngsters embrace a more practical philosophy of ‘cultivating one’s own garden’. Out of all his influential works of Enlightenment, Candide is the best gift Voltaire has given to all of us!!!

As the final notes were being sung by the chorus, I sense that it won’t be long before more revivals and productions of Candide will come to us soon. The reality once known as “the best of all possible worlds’ has already clashed with people’s beliefs of what constitutes democracy. Optimism may not be afforded for much longer. Therefore, at the start of the Trump era, the sensible lesson, metaphorically or even literally speaking, is to make our own garden grow!


(Jay Armstrong Johnson and Linda Lavin in Candide, a New York City Opera’s production of Bernstein. Photo: Sarah Shatz)


(Gregg Edelman, Keith Phares, Jay A johnson, Jessica Tyler Wright, Meghan Picerno. Photo: Sarah Shatz)


(From the left, Keith Phares, Jessica Tyler Wright, Linda Lavin, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Meghan Picerno. Photo: Sarah Shatz)


(Scene from Candide, New York City Opera. Photo: Sarah Shatz)