ALTHOUGH Voltaire's novella "Candide" was ordered destroyed three months after it was first published in 1759, it lives on in 1983, with is rambunctious, irreverent, somewhat surreal essence preserved in a production of the musical that opened last week at Arena Stage. Even Voltaire himself, a thin, irascible genius constantly at odds with the prevailing 18th-century thought, lives on, in the persona of an appropriately bony and bewigged Richard Bauer ensconced in a gilded study hung above the stage.

The 20th-century interpretation of "Candide" has had nearly as rocky a history as the original, although where Voltaire had to write and publish his satire in secrecy, the modern versions have had the opportunity to fail brilliantly in full public view. Arena's production, which is the most ambitious musical effort the 31-year-old theater has undertaken to date, uses the 1973 Hugh Wheeler book, but makes a serious effort to recapture the musicality of the 1956 production, which ran only nine weeks but produced a cast album that acquired a devoted cult following of its own.

First-time viewers of "Candide" may be tempted to think the antics that occur onstage as the hapless Candide travels from Westphalia to Lisbon, Cadiz, Montevideo and points east, north, west and south could not possibly spring from the work of a French philosopher. But the original is, in fact, even more ornate in its plot and language; so it's doubtful that Voltaire would have objected to the singing sheep, rhumba-ing villagers, and flare guns that director Douglas Wager uses to expound on Voltaire's treatise against the "everything is for the best" philosophy of his time.

Take, for example, the meal that Voltaire's Candide and his valet are served in Eldorado: ". . . four soups each garnished with two parrots, a boiled condor which weighed two hundred pounds, two roast monkeys of excellent flavour, three hundred colibris in one dish and six hundred humming birds in another, exquisite ragouts and delicious pastries, all in dishes of a sort of rock crystal." If this is excessive, it comes from the source.

WAGER WAS introduced to the 1973 cast album by a former roommate. "He coerced me into listening to it and reading the score," he said. "My first impression is that it was a free-for-all. But the score!"

At the time, Arena Stage had not done any full-fledged musicals, and certainly none that required operatic voices to do justice to Leonard Bernstein's music. It wasn't until last year, after having successfully tackled "Animal Crackers," that Wager felt that "we should not be scared of it."

Furthermore, he was attracted by the content, by the 18th-century ambiance and by Voltaire and his "wickedly joyous wit" as he spun the tale of Candide, separated by "cruel circumstance" from his love. Cunegonde, who endures an odyssey of disaster and misfortune before they are reunited and he attains a measure of wisdom.

Yet Wager was also aware of Lillian Hellman's heavy, awkward book of 1956 (revived at the Kennedy Center in 1971) and what he felt was an absence of real emotion in Wheeler's successful 1973 version. But any plans he might have had to meld the two were scotched earlier this year when the New York City Opera decided to revive "Candide" and got the jump on the rights to songs that had been cut in 1973.

So he worked at adding some emotion to the 1973 version, toning down the ribaldry in favor of zaniness, and adjusting the character of Voltaire from a "doddering witty old man based on the picture on the Penguin paperback" to what he felt was a more accurate portrayal. He also went for a musical quality that, to listeners of both albums, seems to retain the purity of the 1956 production without losing the comedy of 1973.

Aficionados know that the 1973 book changed the order of songs and eliminated some favorites, like "Quiet," "Eldorado" and "What's the Use," while seven songs, including the "Auto-Da-Fe" production number and the "Sheep's Song," were added or altered. The 1973 version was also more faithful to Voltaire. The success of the production was attributed not only to the improved book, but to Harold Prince's staging, with the audience sitting everywhere, including on the stage.

"Voltaire was the primary intellectual celebrity of his century," said the balding, sober-faced Wager, who researched the man and his century in preparation for directing the play. "Candide is sort of a summary of a lot of things Voltaire stood for."

In Voltaire's time, a debate was raging between religion and philosophy. Wager views "Candide" as an attack on the church's position and control; the teacher Dr. Pangloss tells his charges that since God created the world, everything that happens, whether good or ill, is for the best. "This was saying to the largely poor populace: You must accept your lot in life," said Wager.

Or, as Candide says in the novella: "It is the mania of maintaining that everything is well when we are wretched."

A key event in the development of Voltaire's philosophy was the Lisbon earthquake of 1756, in which thousands of people died when the churches collapsed on them (it was a holy day, so the churches were full). Church leaders decided the earthquake occurred because there were too many heretics around, and proceeded to hang as many as they could. There was another earthquake three days later.

Voltaire wrote a poem, "Le Poeme sur le Desastre de Lisbone," about it, and incorporated the catastrophe into "Candide" as well, a scene that is retained in all its gruesomeness in the current production. One character, hunting candidates for the Inquisition, carries a load of mutilated bodies on his back; the "Auto-Da-Fe" number has the large cast gaily singing and dancing as Candide and Pangloss are beaten and hanged, respectively.

"Voltaire saw the world as a wonderful machine that man is a part of," said Wager. "Man's responsibility is to make sure the machine functions properly. He predicted that the world would collapse if man did not accept his responsibility."

The last words of "Candide" find Pangloss still singing the same tune:

All events are linked up in this best of all possible worlds; for, if you had not been expelled from the noble castle by hard kicks in your backside for love of Mademoiselle Cunegonde, if you had not been clapped into the Inquisition, if you had not wandered about America on foot, if you had not stuck your sword in the baron, if you had not lost all your sheep from the land of Eldorado, you would not be eating candied citrons and pistachios here.

"'Tis well said," replied Candide, "but we must cultivate our gardens."

"I had to go back and find out who Voltaire really was," said Wager. "I can't just paint by the numbers."

And what did he find? "I think he was the George Carlin or the Lenny Bruce of the 18th century," said Wager.