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S & H International Opera Review

Bernstein, Candide A Comic Operetta in Two Acts, Soloists, New York Philharmonic, Marin Alsop (cond.), 7th May 2004, Avery Fisher Hall, New York City (BH)

Music by Leonard Bernstein
Book by Hugh Wheeler, Based on the Satire by Voltaire
Lyrics by Richard Wilbur
Additional Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, John Latouche, Lillian Hellman, and Leonard Bernstein
Book adapted for the New York Philharmonic by Lonny Price
Orchestrations by Leonard Bernstein and Hershy Kay
Additional Orchestrations by John Mauceri

Cast (in order of appearance)

Dr. Pangloss/Narrator/Voltaire: Sir Thomas Allen
Candide: Paul Groves
Baron/Inquisitor/Don Issachar/Cacambo: Michael McCormick
Baroness/Sheep: Gina Ferrall
Paquette: Janine LaManna
Cunegonde: Kristin Chenoweth
Maximillian: Jeff Blumenkrantz
Judge/Captain/Crook: Michael McElroy
Judge/Aide/Prefect/Governor: John Herrera
Heresy Agent/Archbishop/Priest: Ray Wills
The Old Lady: Patti LuPone
Sheep: Patty Goble
Vanderdendur/Ragotski: Stanford Olsen
Company:
Westminster Symphonic Choir, Joseph Flummerfelt, director
Juilliard Undergraduate Workshop, Edward Berkeley, director

 

 

Leonard Bernstein’s joyously black humored Candide is a tough, almost unruly animal to convey, and its checkered history onstage is perhaps the best evidence of the difficulties inherent in the score. With its brilliant, curious mix of music – sort of "Broadway meets Gilbert & Sullivan, who dream up Spanish kitsch while channeling Rossini, all perhaps colliding with Offenbach" – and its deadpan story overloaded with comedy, tragedy and ambiguity, it can seem puzzling to know how to fully give flight to the composer’s vision. The music, however, is some of Bernstein’s most memorable, and joined with Hugh Wheeler’s book and lyrics offers inspired invention for the orchestra, not to mention hilarious and gripping passages for the cast.

As a longtime admirer of the Westminster Symphonic Choir, here onstage during the entire production, it must be noted that they triumphed, both individually and as a group, in the midst of a fairly starry sky of big-name singers. Aided by talented members of the Juilliard Undergraduate Workshop, the chorus was probably encouraged to be more physical than in anything they have recently attempted. Whether holding up signs or unfurling banners, not to mention donning masks, Hawaiian leis, fake noses and God-knows-what-else I’ve missed, all the while running up and down steps and traversing back and forth across the stage, the group seemed completely natural as a sort of overlarge singing comedy troupe. Director Lonny Price made the most of an ensemble that has secured its international reputation based on vocal artistry alone, and his movement coaching can only have added to the group’s precise and often exquisite musical contributions. Diction was terrific. In an age when English-language operas nevertheless require surtitles, I was floored to be able to easily hear At last we can be cheery/The danger’s passed us by. /So sing a Dies Irae/And hang the bastard high! And whether in the glowingly hushed passages of The Ballad of Eldorado or the unbelievably moving a capella climax of the final Make Our Garden Grow, the tone and discipline on display were mesmerizing.

Paul Groves, who was sensational last season as Tom in The Rake’s Progress at the Met, seemed ideally cast as the dim-witted protagonist, seeming much younger than his years, and even managing a nifty cartwheel amid his other shenanigans. Vocally he could not have sounded better, his lyrical tenor soaring off into the hall (yes, amplified, but more on that later). Two numbers in particular, It Must Be So and Ballad of Eldorado, were simply breathtaking in Groves’ hands, and further, the moments when he and Kristin Chenoweth rhapsodized together were among the most heart-stopping moments in the evening.

Chenoweth seemed a close-to-perfect Cunegonde, singing the difficult part with great accuracy coupled with spot-on comic timing. Her huge voice is somewhat at odds with her petite size; she seemed about three feet tall and wore a frothy pink frock that caused the distinguished Sir Thomas Allen (unequivocally winning as Dr. Pangloss) to refer to her as "a little raspberry coulis." The showstopping Glitter and Be Gay, done by singers as diverse as Renée Fleming, Barbara Cook, Dawn Upshaw and June Anderson (on Bernstein’s recording), is perhaps difficult to make one’s own – but Chenoweth’s riotous invention created a take on it that was wholly hers, and wholly convincing. In the song’s stratospheric first "sigh," usually tossed off with delightfully literal precision, Chenoweth gave it a deliberate rasp, sounding almost as if she were having a heart attack.

Patti LuPone had a hilarious time as the Old Woman, whose lost buttock is never entirely explained to anyone’s satisfaction. Janine LaManna was entirely engaging as Paquette, and Jeff Blumenkrantz had a high time as the narcissistic Maximillian, even tossing out a nice falsetto.

The orchestra, unamplified as far as I could tell, sounded thoroughly magnificent, such as the jazzy work from the brass, and some beautiful string work accompanying Groves in his ballads. I loved concertmaster Glenn Dicterow’s deliberately sickly violin solo in Quiet, in which the characters complain about their malaise using an anemic melodic line that sounds vaguely like a twelve-tone row. Comparable to the Philharmonic’s recent work on Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, it is a complete pleasure to hear a score like this played by experts.

Director Price kept the almost nonstop action at a level that both those onstage and the audience could tolerate, without degenerating into undue busywork. Yes, some of his decisions I didn’t care for. The gorgeous It Must Be So was interrupted by laughter when an LP of West Side Story was slowly passed down the chorus line to be dropped in Candide’s bag – a cheap laugh, and all the more irritating for obliterating Groves’ beautiful singing. The opening banner, with the single word Optimism? in giant blue letters on a bright yellow background, seemed completely unnecessary, and other jokey asides, such as the self-conscious references to LuPone’s stardom, also seemed like distractions that will only be more tiresome as time wears on. But overall, Price had a keen sense of pacing with a show that can seem, like Candide’s odyssey, meandering and just plain long. (The piece clocked in at just under three hours.) In a host of technical credits, the lighting design by Kevin Adams was exemplary: very subtly conceived, given the semi-staged constraints, and with well-executed cues that never called attention to themselves.

But the real star of the evening was conductor Marin Alsop, whose commanding assurance illuminated Bernstein’s score as truthfully, and as stirringly, as we are likely to hear it. What impressed me from the opening bars of the score was her ability to project its rhythmic invention with such precision. The fizzing Overture is incredibly tricky, with skittering syncopations and explosive rhythm changes, and in mediocre performances an ensemble can seem to be lagging behind itself. But in this case, tempi seemed flowing enough to encourage the vocalists to phrase well, but not so briskly that the beauty of Bernstein’s score was thrown to the wolves. Technically assured throughout the evening, Alsop seemed to know the score in her sleep and was able to (seemingly) have as much fun as the audience and everyone else onstage. She was even generous with her persona to include a brief double-take: as LuPone revealed her multiple torments in I am Easily Assimilated, a mock-shocked Alsop whirled to face the audience and gasped, "Stark naked?"

The issue of amplification in concert halls is a touchy one, and I am as wary as anyone of the perils of using electronics, especially in a huge and relatively complex production. Frankly, I don’t want to be aware of microphones, are being used, much less hear even a hint of distortion or feedback. Interestingly during the finale, Groves’ microphone cut out briefly, just for a split-second, allowing a tiny moment for comparison when his voice was being projected naturally. Not only did he carry above the other (amplified) voices, but I got a glimpse, admittedly quite brief, of what the production might have sounded like in natural sound. Now, all of this said, with all the physical cavorting onstage, it is unlikely that the complicated lyrics would have been audible without body mikes, and further, that the right balances with the orchestra would have been achieved – perhaps a Solomon-like decision but one I would affirm, given the results.

The sold-out performances were taped for broadcast – apparently for PBS’ Great Performances and/or DVD release – and anyone who loves Bernstein’s majestic, witty score should investigate when the recording appears. Viewers will probably end up whistling Life is Happiness Indeed – all irony intact – just as I did on the way out.

Bruce Hodges

 


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