Early in the planning stages for “Candide,” director Susan V. Booth ran into a square-footage issue.
The artistic director of the Alliance Theatre had partnered with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra to bring Leonard Bernstein’s operetta to Symphony Hall, but on a stage filled with the ASO, the ASO Chorus and 16 performers, there wasn’t much room for a set. Volcanoes, earthquakes and shipwrecks — all of which bubble up during the fantastical plot of “Candide” — demand space.
Booth fixed her large problem with a small-scale solution. Instead of showing the trials of Candide, a sunny optimist who maintains his positive outlook on life in the face of increasing calamity, in life-sized detail, she enlisted puppetry artist Matt Acheson to shrink down the action. Acheson constructed puppets and small toys to mirror the disasters in the play; the misfortunes first imagined by Voltaire in his 1759 novella now take place inside a small toy theater.
During the performance, Acheson’s work will be broadcast via video feed to two large sails suspended over the stage. In this imaging of Candide, the ASO and ASO Chorus are also protagonists in the proceedings.
“It’ll be both the human story as made by gorgeous musicians and actors and singers,” Booth said, “and also the epic adventures that will be on large screens, but will essentially be little tiny shipwrecks.”
Conducted by ASO Music Director Robert Spano and based on a 2004 concert adaptation for the New York Philharmonic by Lonny Price, Atlanta’s semi-staged version of “Candide” features Aaron Blake and Alexandra Schoeny in the main roles of Candide and Cunegonde, respectively. The operetta enters previews May 9, with an opening-night performance on May 11.
While Booth and Spano have been neighbors in the Woodruff Arts Center for 17 years, and both of them have been looking to collaborate from day one, schedule conflicts and other logistics had previously proved insurmountable. With the ASO in the midst of a two-year celebration of Bernstein and Beethoven, and the Alliance Theatre out on the road during the reconstruction of its theater, the time was finally right for this historic collaboration.
“We’ve been talking so long about wanting to do something together, and circumstance helped us,” Spano said.
“Candide” has roots in both operatic and Broadway traditions. For the joint production between the ASO and the Alliance Theatre, organizers set out to play up that melding of voices, selecting operatic leads for the two main parts and then rounding out the cast with actors more accustomed to Broadway roles.
Premiering on Broadway in 1956, “Candide” has since been produced in many different iterations. It has been alternately reduced to a 90-minute sprint, elongated for a three-hour epic and reimagined for the New York Philharmonic staging, among other productions.
“Everyone has tried their hand at this piece,” said Evans Mirageas, the ASO’s vice president for artistic planning
The pairing between the Alliance Theatre and the ASO is a continuation of the symphony’s “theater of a concert” performances. During Spano’s tenure, the ASO has presented an increasing number of operas such as Verdi’s “Otello,” “Dr. Atomic” by John Adams and Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice.” Some of these performances have looked very much like concerts — the orchestra is on stage, the soloists perform the entire work from front and center, and the chorus stands on risers in the back. Other works have involved significant stagecraft.
“It’s not going to look like a concert,” Spano said of “Candide.” “This one, I think, is wonderfully different.”
While stage design and acting are important, Bernstein’s score, which blends a wide range of vernacular American musical styles with operatic arias, is the centerpiece of the work. For Spano, the eccentricity of the score makes “Candide” stand out.
“It’s an unusual piece to classify, which for me is part of the fascination,” he said.
Also unusual is the demands it makes on ASO musicians. Orchestra and chorus members are accustomed to working within a three-performance schedule. ASO concert stagings of operas and other shows have existed within this framework, so performing “Candide” night after night for the better part of two weeks is out of the ordinary.
“To draw up renewed inspiration and find fresh perspective and perform the work as if for the first time every time, I think is often the real challenge,” said Spano. “And there’s no preparation for that except to just live it.”
Spano is stepping away from his full-time conducting role with the ASO at the end of the 2021 season, so “Candide” likely won’t mark the beginning of a string of collaborations between Spano and Booth, but they both are optimistic about working together at such a scale in the near future.
“There are these glorious masterworks with incredible orchestral scores that very few theaters can take on,” she said. “I think it’s about finding those works that Robert is fascinated by that traffic in both mediums.”
Voltaire, a lifelong optimist, wrote “Candide” in the midst of re-thinking of his status in life. There is good in the world, he had found, but good things don’t always happen to good people. “Candide” was Voltaire’s answer to the confusing world, Booth said, and the story still resonates today.
“There’s a perfection, an unfortunate perfection, about the times were in, and the story of ‘Candide,’” Booth said. “It is, ‘How does one go on in a time of utter inexplicable chaos?’ It felt like the right time.”
‘Candide.’ A collaboration with the Alliance Theatre and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. May 9-20. $20 and up. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-5000, www.atlantasymphony.org.