It is with that trepidation which hapless Candide (the eponymous hero of Bernstein’s operetta) ought have employed on first touching down his big toe on Mother Earth that we embark on this review of, yes, Candide, a semi-staged production of the New England Conservatory Opera Department, which opened and closed last night at Jordan Hall. Opened and closed on schedule, unlike many of the innumerable, protean and, picaresque iterations the work has endured since its 1956 parturition.
Let’s not be coy, saving the verdict for the end. The audience, pushing just a smidgeon under full capacity, roared its approval for this bravura presentation. And, upon occasion, the audience (more often than the critics), gets it dead to rights. Those New Englanders absenting themselves, for whatever reason, missed one ebullient treat.
Ok, we’ve gotten that off our chest. Now where were we? Ah yes, felling like a hapless Candide. Your correspondent hunches warily over his keyboard, braced ‘gainst all the unexpected pratfalls, blows, outrageous slings and arrows which human injustice can devise, and which Bernstein’s musical so zanily illustrates. Whom dare we offend?
Certainly not Maestro Stephen Lord, who debuted last evening as the new Artistic Director of Opera Studies at New England Conservatory (NEC). “Yes, Lord” (to his friends) has been touted as one of the twenty-five Most Powerful Names in US Opera so frequently that we are beginning to disbelieve it. Oh well, being among the most powerful in US opera doesn’t exactly give you access to the nuclear button. This was, in a way, Maestro Lord’s Roman Triumph, a return to Beantown, entrusted with a work particularly close to his heart.
Or, are we messing with Lord’s new colleague who joins in the directorship of the NEC opera program, mezzo Luretta Bybee (the role of Old Lady)? Or with Ron Raines (Voltaire/Pangloss), guiding light of the CBS Guiding Light?
Venturing only most recently into music criticism, we boast, au fond, zero credentials to sit in judgment on these stellars. Oh but wait: time out of mind, that is just what does qualify a critic. (Oh God, now their toes are trodden.) So you see, wherever we turn we are in trouble and Boston is a small world, not to mention the world itself.
Let us return to the adulatory line.
One. Maestro Lord’s direction was masterful and, firstly, for his sure pacing. Chorus, orchestra and principals delivered spirited, inspired performances, con brio. One cannot imagine this is not the direct result of his guiding hand.
Candide has suffered so many different versions and adaptations, that, at this writing, we are not really sure which version was employed, or adapted (!), last evening. (No info in the program. More on this anon.) However, we surely did NOT witness the 1973 Harold Prince (“Chelsea”) version arranged for thirteen pit instruments. The orchestral forces deployed last evening were Mahlerian. Yes, Mr. Lord did revel in unleashing the full sonic splendor of entire company, entire chorus and full orchestral tutti. But only when climactically appropriate. And all the score’s outrageous, satirical erudition as well as its lush romanticism were in full flower.
Not knowing the piece that well (just to reinforce my journalistic bona fides), we were particularly delighted by recondite musical broadsides planted like so many landmines throughout the score. Surely, in the scene of overwhelming ennui (Act II, governor’s palace) the introductory motif is a parody of a twelve-tone row. (Go, Lenny!)
Two. The conservatory orchestra players were largely recruited from the NEC Symphony, the more junior of NEC’s full ensembles. So more power to them for their execution of this very challenging and fussy score. They produced a totally convincing imitation of a first-class professional orchestra. You wouldn’t believe it to walk through the corridors in the day time, but they clean up nicely.
Three. Mr. Lord chose to cast his Candide as a hybrid production, introducing “ringer” performers from the “real” professional world. Thus we had Raines, Bybeek, and Michael Meraw (Rogatski) featured in leads. Initially, Raines appears as a narrator, à la Copland’s Lincoln Portrait. (Groan.) Seeing him perched on that inevitable “narrator’s stool” immediately fed our apprehensions of all-too-frequent “Narrator” pufferies, as, for example, engaging Arianna Huffington for Peter and the Wolf. But, even before we could locate his program bio, Raines flew the perch, strode center stage and opened up a powerful, rich and accurate baritone. He turned in a consummate, wry performance. (Little wonder, once we saw his stage and musical résumé, extending leagues beyond his job at CBS. Raines, which is your day job?) Likewise, Bybee, entertaining us as Old Woman, commanded the stage with delightful ease.
But, what of the student performers?
Performances, vocal as well as instrumental, at NEC, are usually astonishingly good. If one would ever say that a performance lacks, perhaps, the maturity of a BSO reading, to our mind, this is more than compensated by the verve, and infectious enthusiasm of these young artists. (This has been our personal conviction long before serving on an NEC board. And, should they throw us off, we would still so asseverate.)
In that context, let us say that Michael Kuhn as Candide and Jennifer Caraluzzi as Cunegonde matched their senior colleagues. Caraluzzi, 2010 Jenny Lind Competition winner, was quite fabulous, nowhere more than in the preposterously over-the-top and fiendish showpiece “Glitter and be Gay” (Oh, yes, Lenny, we get it. Please.) Kuhn sang with a strong beautiful tenor and was the goofy ingénue Candide to perfection. And, we’d like to know, how many of us can toss off a male ingénue goofball?
We should also nod approvingly to David Tafone (Maximilian), particularly amusing in his opening “reflexion,” to Emily Brand (Paquette), and Randyn Miller (Vanderdendur).
Four. Sean Curran’s semi-staging was concise, focused, and greatly humorous. Indeed, the stage business and direction was so entertaining that we didn’t sense any lack of a full production. There was much better than rudimentary lighting including gold, blue, and pink gels and a restless follow spot, but alas, no footlights. The illumination of the mute organ pipes during the auto da fé scene was particularly evocative. It made one nostalgic for the era when the Jordan Hall stage had articulated wings and doubled as a theatrical stage. The splitting of the chorus into functional reinforcements behind the orchestra, and a subset of acting chorus, downstage with the principals, was a nice piece of generalship. Perhaps Lord and Curran share the credit for this strategy.
All told, deft work indeed.
Now a couple of observations.
Lord chose to present this work semi-staged with orchestra upstage and performers downstage and on the “apron.” Balance and projection of the text is the paramount perennial issue with musical theater of all types. (Exhibits for opera nerds: “Prima la musica, poi la parola” or Strauss’ Capriccio, and on and on. Rest of you, just keep reading.) Orchestral balance was well handled (as above) and, tellingly, every performer evinced diction (enunciation) that was as perfect as is humanly reasonable to expect. (Bravi, tutti!) Having said that, the “capture,” roughly five rows back, was about 70%, and we would not venture what percentage of the text made it to the top galleries. The lyrics and book of Candide being so exceptionally funny, one regretted even the last syllable of the single lost word.
Dogma I. As far as opera performance goes, we assert that today, the Universal Standard is subtitles, even in our native tongue. In this case, having reference to the small percentage of missed words would have increased our enjoyment exponentially. So we would urge some disposition of subtitles henceforth and in perpetuity.
Dogma II. When we get to “musical theater” as opposed to “opera,” we assert that the problem of words versus music has been solved, once and for all. Since at least as far back as Les Miz, head (or wig) mike-ing, and judicious live-mix amplification renders every last syllable intelligible.
So, of course it depends on whether we treat a chimera like Candide as American Musical Theater or as Oper(ett)a. But a production ought make one provision or t’other to ensure that every word crosses the footlights.
One recalls the horreur over the Baz Luhrmann Bohème on Broadway, because it used head mikes and subtle amplification of young opera singers. To our thinking, that stunning, brilliant and affecting interpretation is just one, refreshing, and new way to present a standard. Just as one can do Bach on some damned tinkelbox or a Bösendorfer Imperial.
As to the objection that, well, NEC opera singers are being trained for classical opera, we rejoin: yes for classical opera, but according to NEC’s own stated policy of broadening economic career potential, students should have experience with amplified performance as well. And don’t bother to tweet back on this one. Frankly, m’dears, we don’t give a damn.
With regard to this idea of the NEC Opera Department hybrid, with senior guest artists taking leads, we are of two minds. Yes, we can imagine that the students’ opportunity to collaborate with, observe, and “network” with established celebrities might provide artistic and professional advantages. Time and student feedback should tell that tale. On the other hand, we have seen extraordinarily fine productions of operas at NEC, including Don Giovanni, with all the roles, including “The Don,” performed by students. At what point does the hybrid transform NEC opera into a regional opera, competing with Lyric and Opera Boston, and into a showcase for outside ringers? To what extent does NEC want to reduce students’ experience of preparing a complete role? For example, Meraw, a guest artist, appeared as Rogatski. We do not doubt for a minute Meraw’s skill and talent, but the exposure afforded by this very small cameo hardly seemed to justify his appearance, as opposed to giving a student a shot at the part. One hopes that Lord casts productions on a case-by-case basis, drafting ringers where the school talent pool is irrevocably deficient.
Now, one final observation. It is a far, far better thing to deliver an adequate performance than an adequate program. This performance, as intimated, soared vastly above the “adequate.” Last night’s printed program was, on the contrary, lamentable. Numbers, scenes, acts, intermission(s) were absent, and most disconcertingly, nothing at all was printed about the outstanding and deserving young NEC singers performing leads and supporting roles. One dearly wanted to know, for example, about exactly where they are in their training, about their teachers, their recent accomplishments and interests. How ‘bout some bios, gang?
Furthermore, while the confused and protean evolution of Candide could provide a PhD topic for the Compleat Dramaturg, it would have been nice to see something sketched about the history of the piece. And, carping yet further, the NEC website makes reference to “The biting satire of Lillian Hellman’s libretto.” But surely, the version we saw is long after the original 1956 Hellman text, which was totally jettisoned in all subsequent versions.
So, we would like to see a program more worthy of a premier educational institution. For example, we recall the program Longy produced for its “Septemberfest 2010,” a literate, informative, and careful document covering their multi-concert celebration of Barber and Schumann.
And, finally, allow us also to register our utter perplexity at the program’s substitution of a term “cover” for the time-honored term “understudy.” Someone please tell us what is this all about? Oh, wait, we get it. “Understudy” contains “under” and that must connote a sense of subjection, inferiority or subjugation. Oh, we see…..But in that case, wouldn’t the guys be the “covers” and the girls be called “coverlets?”
In closing, just for the sheer joy of counter-revisionism: As this delightful performance serpentined to the philosophic consolations of “tending one’s own garden,” we found ourselves musing that Leibniz was quite ill served by the avaricious old asp of Ferney. After all, asserting we are in the “best of all possible worlds” in no way implies that the “best possible” world is really all that great. Sigh.
But Lord’s at NEC came close.