IN: Reviews

A Best of All Possible Candides


Frederica von Stade-with TFC Fellows Ryan Casperson and Sam Filson-Parkinson (HIlary Scott photo)
Frederica von Stade with TFC Members Ryan Casperson and Sam Filson-Parkinson (Hilary Scott photo)

The BSO, Tanglewood Festival Chorus, Bramwell Tovey, and a coterie of soloists gathered Saturday night at Tanglewood to present Leonard Bernstein’s Candide in a  wonderful performance which sent us all out into the night filled with optimism.

The opera’s pre-history begins with Voltaire’s 1759 picaresque, “Candide or Optimism,” a satirical take on a key Enlightenment premise. Using simple language, this now ubiquitous text defies credulity with its plot full of holes and its fantastical voyages within Europe (Westphalia to Lisbon on a boat, seemingly fantastical geography) and to South America (including finding, and leaving, the mythical Eldorado): perhaps this is the earliest example of magical realism. It seems destined to become an opera. There remains, though, the problem of converting a philosophical sendup into a human-interest story and making the musical setting captivating to audiences. Further, as Lillian Hellman wrote, “To many it is far the greatest satire ever written, hitting out in all directions, enclosing all human nonsense in a never halting rush to the end. It is the greatest piece of slapdash ever written, at the greatest speed.” Skewering everything in sight and maintaining breakneck velocity are traits more associated with vaudeville than even comic operas or operettas. The 1950s saw a concerted effort to remove generic barriers between serious and popular art, between opera and musical theater, so it makes this foray very much a product of its time. It is a brilliant interrogation, and demolition, of the constraints and boundaries among musical genres.

Bernstein took up a substantial challenge with this project, aided and abetted by Hellman. The lyrics are by Richard Wilbur, taking off from Hellman’s script, with additional ones provided by Stephen Sondheim, John LaTouche, Dorothy Parker, and Bernstein himself. (Some of Wilbur’s thoughts on this work are recounted here and in this interview. For the curiouser, Michael H. Hutchins has compiled information on who contributed which lyric to the workin its various states and revisions. The idea for a musical collaboration between Hellman and Bernstein dates back to 1950, but much of the writing would seem to stem from a shared summer vacation on Martha’s Vineyard in 1956; the show premiered that fall, opening on Broadway on 1 December for a run of 73 performances. Various forces (some critical, some financial) conspired to close it at that point, but recordings kept the music in the ears of many people. In time this led to a new production in 1971, a makeover in 1973 and again in 1982. Music was cut, reordered, restored; plot was shortened and lengthened; Bernstein permitted all but did not participate. Finally, in 1988 for the Scottish Opera, Bernstein worked with John Mauceri to create his final version. (Andrew Porter’s essay in the booklet to this recording goes into more detail.) The Scottish Opera version was the basis for this Tanglewood concert, which had its own cuts and alterations as well as updated narration.

Following the well-known overture, we take up the story of the bastard Candide. In Act I, we meet him in the Westphalian Schloss Thunder-ten-Tronck, his father’s home. Here Dr. Pangloss teaches his philosophy of Universal Good to Candide, as well as the Baron’s legitimate daughter, Cunegonde (Candide’s love interest), and Maximilian (who is his own love interest). We also meet Paquette, one of the maids of the Schloss. Exiled for his love, Candide journeys into the world, falls in with the Bulgar Army, and finds himself attacking his former home and witnessing the death of all its inhabitants. Sometime later, Candide reunites with the revivified Dr. Pangloss, who maintains his optimism despite his now disfiguring syphilis, and they voyage to Lisbon. There they are arrested as heretics and Pangloss hanged, but Candide escapes in the confusion surrounding a massive earthquake. Finding himself in Paris, Candide reunites with Cunegonde, now mistress of both a rich Jew and the city’s Archbishop. Candide accidentally kills both of her lovers, the couple flee with the Old Lady to Cádiz, and Candide accepts a commission to fight for the Jesuits in South America.

Act II opens in Buenos Aires, where the Governor proposes marriage to Cunegonde. Candide, still in flight mindset, goes off into the jungle, where he encounters a Jesuit mission and meets the Superiors—Father being Maximilian and Mother being Paquette, both returned to life and transported to another continent. When Candide expresses his love for Cunegonde and his hope to marry her, Maximilian is outraged and, once again accidentally, Candide kills him. Fleeing, Candide finds his way into Eldorado, but its fabled wealth is not enough to detain him without his beloved, so he leaves with enough gems and golden sheep to secure her ransom and passage to Venice. Passing through Surinam, Candide meets the pessimist Martin, an anti-Pangloss, and the two embark on a leaky raft sold them by Vanderdendur. Inevitably, the boat sinks, Martin drowns, but Candide survives to be rescued by Pangloss, once more undead, and five deposed kings looking to lead a happily simple life. Arriving in Venice during Carnival, our principals find themselves, naturally, at a masked ball, and reunite. Philosophical disillusionment leads Candide to some days of silence before he leads the finale, “Make Our Garden Grow.” Larger matters set aside, thoughts turn to vegetables and bread in the immediate domestic sphere, as the (figurative) curtain descends.

No gaps in that plot. None at all. No sudden resurrections or random displacements either.

Just as the book combines philosophy and farce, high and low, the music is a heady mélange of forms: gavotte, mazurka, waltz, polka, chorale, ballad, bolero−it’s all in there. The score is composed with an attention to detail and structure that is easy to overlook in the rapidity and delight of performance. That overture is a masterful presentation of themes heard later, but so beautifully combined that it reads as a miniature orchestral essay and not a preview. The wit and sparkle are not glittery coverups for lack of substance but visible manifestation of learned and sardonic joy. There is depth throughout that repays careful study of the masterful Bernstein at play.

Bramwell Tovey conducted the amassed performers with grace and insight during the almost three hours of this event. The title role was sung by tenor Nicholas Phan, who started out the evening singing with a guileless simplicity as befits the prelapsarian Candide. After exile from the Schloss is pronounced, his singing took on a depth of remorse and regret, with richness and melancholy of tone and timbre. There remained lightness of spirit as he continued hoping for optimism and trying to find the Panglossian world, coupled with excellent timing and delightful delivery of spoken lines. Throughout the peregrinations, happiness warred with despondency in his voice and delivery, until the assured finale, where honest conviction turns us all into earnest horticulturalists (if not homesteaders). The audience lost optimism along with Candide and found a more circumscribed happiness by evening’s end.

Soprano Anna Christy sang Cunegonde, transforming from simpering to worldly to calculating as the show progressed; in Paris her singing took on something of Piaf in terms of delivery and sadness. Her aria, “Glitter and Be Gay,” was simultaneously happy and sad, simple and complex, tragedy leavened. Kathryn Leemhuis, mezzo, brought to the role of Paquette a wide-eyed and wry worldliness; mezzo Frederica van Stade sang the Old Lady, perfectly combining acting, singing, and accents to amuse and instruct. A mentor of nebulous intent and dubious virtue, she gave a bravura turn in her second act duet with Cunegonde, “We Are Women.” Meanwhile Beau Gibson (tenor) embodied the smaller parts of Governor, Vanderdendur and Ragotski with distinct cameos (even if it fell to his lot to sing bit-part bad guys), and Paul LaRose (baritone) brought Maximilian to thrillingly smarmy life.Matthew Worth (baritone) rounded out a number of smaller parts in this cast, along with TMC Vocal Fellows Stephen Carroll and Vincent Festa (tenors), and Cairan Ryan and Nathan Wyatt (baritones), plus Tanglewood Festival Chorus members Ryan Casperson (tenor), and Sam Filson Parkinson (bass). All delivered solid excitement.

The BSO performs Candide with Anna Christy, Nicholas Phan, with Bramwell Tovey conducting (Hilary Scott photo)
The BSO performs Candide under Bramwell Tovey with Richard Suart, Kathryn Leemhuis, Paul LaRose (Hilary Scott photo)

In a concert presentation, so very much hinges on the narration. Baritone Richard Suart sang the roles of Pangloss and Martin while narrating the parts of Voltaire and Cacambo. With dry wit, straight expression, and enviable comic timing, he held the audience in his thrall and provided topical allusions and amusing meta-commentary on the lacunose plot. Truly, Suart was an unsung (more accurately undersung) hero of this production. His singing of “Dear Boy” was filled with the wisdom of a life lived and the fervent belief in his own words—a stunning rendition.

Finally, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. On risers at the back of the stage, dressed in white jackets and dresses, those singers sang their hearts out and did a fine job acting out their parts. The dancing singers with red headbands and sombreros added color and amusement, bringing them from background to fore at key moments. The first act chorus “Auto-da-fé” was as fine a performance of that number as I have ever heard. The orchestra brought the instrumental music to life in a finely honed collaboration with the many singers. Malcolm Lowe (violin) and Mihail Jojatu (cello) gave noteworthy readings of their solos.

When Candide and chorus in “The Ballad of Eldorado” sing “Witty even in translation,” I couldn’t help thinking that the words apply to Bernstein’s Candide. Lenny’s spirit smiled on the grounds he so often haunted, and this performance was the richer for his smiling presence.

Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College.  He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.


2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Just a note: Ryan and Sam, in the first photo with their sombreros and Ms. von Stade, are members of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, not TMC. Everything else you say is absolutely right — it was a thrilling evening of fun, frolic, and fine music-making. Bravo to one and all.

    Comment by jaylyn — August 21, 2014 at 8:20 am

  2. We didn’t hear it, but the discussion is fascinating and admirably done.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — August 21, 2014 at 7:47 pm

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