This is the year of Candide. Surely more productions of Bernstein’s show have been mounted in his centennial year that in any 5, or even 10, year period previously. Not bad for a “failure” that lasted only 73 performances in its original run in 1956-57. But the original cast album saved the show, reminding listeners for a couple of decades how musically rich it was, stuffed with numbers in styles ranging from period dances to arias for 19th-century operatic divas to even a passing parody of Schoenbergian 12-tone style. Listening to the recording, one did not have to confront the problematic book by Lillian Hellman, who, though she was a master of the “well-made play,” had never written for a musical and didn’t achieve the kind of pacing and dialogue that is required when speech get interrupted by song with considerable regularity. Later versions also removed the political elements that she insisted on working into the plot at the time of the accusations of un-American activity on the part of Senator Joseph McCarthy.
During nearly 45 years following the original production, Bernstein and others made numerous attempts to create a different Candide, with a livelier book and a better interplay of libretto and music.
The Tanglewood program identifies the version used there as “the Scottish Opera Edition of the Opera-House version (1989).” This was the last version approved by Bernstein, on which John Mauceri played a role, developing it from the “Opera-House version” that he had produced for the New York City Opera several years earlier. Bernstein recorded the Scottish Opera version in the last year of his life. It may be considered an “official” script of Candide, though even so many productions (including this one) cut a certain amount of the material, since so many versions were developed over the years.
Ozawa Hall is designed for concerts, not theatricals, so a fully staged theater work, with an orchestral accompaniment, needs to be fit into the specific space. Stage and lighting designer Aaron Copp provided the playing space (on the front half of the stage, with slightly elevated platforms angled at the back) in front of the orchestra. Entrances are all downstage, left and right.
A large, bright red curtain hangs at the very back, covering everything from the ceiling down to the stage.
In this space, stage director Alison Moritz and choreographer John Heginbotham have developed a fast-moving comic take on Bernstein’s work, though the comedy is often intercut with unexpected passages of great poignancy. Costume designer Amanda Seymour has dressed the cast as if this is an offering by a traveling circus, with everyone in bright-colored clothing decorated with clown-like stripes, colorful wigs and makeup (designed by Tommy Kurzman)—all except for Candide, in a sober black suit resembling the circus’s sad clown, and Pangloss/Voltaire, who is more formally dressed, and serving as the ringmaster. They all enter during the overture, twirling, dancing, sending up the circus vibe, and carrying signs that will be placed on an easel downstage left to provide useful guidance as to the location where each scene is set in this far-reaching plot.
Every production of Candide that I have seen, even when ostensibly based on the same version, makes changes in the dialogue, though the basic thrust always remains the same. The performance at Tanglewood omits the character of Martin, the “anti-Pangloss,” for whom this is “the worst of all possible worlds.” I’ve seen performances in which Martin is played by the same actor as Pangloss, others in which they are two different actors. Omitting Martin entirely, on the other hand, allows Candide to come to his own conclusions about this world, on the basis of his endless string of negative experiences.
From the very first production of Candide, a common critique claimed that the plot was hard to follow because every scene took place in a different location on both sides of the Atlantic. Some versions have Pangloss (appearing as Voltaire) provide guidance. Evan Jones, the excellent Pangloss and Cacambo, was also Voltaire, though he did not make a significant point of it here. The Knights’ production makes excellent and sensible use of the signs on the easel, mentioned earlier. When the locale changes, a new place is indicated, whether “Lisbon” or “Paris” or “Surinam” or any other. In the spirit of the circus, and its self-conscious role in the way “Voltaire” frequently addressed the audience, we were reminded that a given event took place “three scenes ago” or that there was “still a lot of plot to get through before the intermission.” All of this was carried out with high good humor.
Candide (Myles Mykkanen), his love Cunegonde (Sharleen Joynt), the Old Lady (Margaret Gawrysiak), and Maximilian (Alexander Elliot, who was also the Grand Inquisitor and a Sea Captain) offered splendid voices with superb appropriateness to their roles. Mykkanen was both the determined follower of Pangloss’s philosophy and the victim of one disaster after another, all projected with a clear, warm tenor and superb diction. Joynt gave a particularly brilliant rendering of her coloratura aria “Glitter and be gay,” with extra trills on the top and equally excellent diction throughout. Gawrysiak made much of the funny and unlikely part of the Old Lady, whose missing buttock was represented, amusingly, by the naked framework of a bustle on one half of her backside. Elliot’s powerful baritone served him well for the several roles he played.
The other actors appeared in diverse roles. Alex Mansoori was effective in four roles, including the Baron of Thunder Ten Tronck and the Governor of Buenos Aires. Sarah Larsen was Paquette, who popped unexpectedly up in almost every part of the world. Four ensemble members (Zoe Johnson, Emma Sorenson, Aaron Crouch, and Luke MacMillan moved flexibly from chorus parts to a wide range of unnamed characters. And two dancers, John Eirich and Courtney Lopes, moved with colorful circus-like acrobatics throughout the entire show. Even the members of the orchestra occasionally took a singing part—especially during the a cappella middle section of the show’s finale, “Make Our Garden Grow.”’
The Knights, has appeared at Tanglewood before in a very different kind of program. The ensemble, consisting of 25 instruments on this occasion, under the direction of Eric Jacobsen (who founded the ensemble with his brother Colin), was musically excellent in all of the diverse styles that Bernstein created for this score. In addition, the way the took part at times in aspects of the on-stage foolery was both rare in musical theater and a contribution to the delight created by this original view of Leonard Bernstein’s brilliant show.
Steven Ledbetter is a freelance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.