by George Van Wagner
Begin with a now classic Leonard Bernstein score that the composer referred to as his “love letter to Europe.” Layer in broad comedy, social satire, philosophical musings about the nature of good, evil and man’s responsibility to engage with the world. Season with strong performances and inventive staging, and you have the recipe for Candide, just finishing its run at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion under the auspices of the L.A. Opera and featuring Kelsey Grammer and Christine Ebersole.
Voltaire’s satire and criticism of 18th century society was told through the eyes and journey of a young innocent, Candide. Taught that this is “the best of all possible worlds,” by his tutor, the philosopher Pangloss, he and his companions are subjected to war, inquisition, disease, natural disasters and betrayal, all the while attempting to maintain that belief. The novel was quickly condemned by both crown and church as seditious, blasphemous and heretical. To Lillian Hellman and Leonard Bernstein, both victims of the McCarthyite “Red Scare,” the opportunity to use it as a springboard for a pointed look at contemporary society in the 1950s was impossible to resist. Unlike many pieces of that time, many of the satirical barbs remain all too accurate to contemporary times. Fortunately, the jabs are concealed with wit and humor and couched in a glorious score that lies at the crossroads of opera, operetta and the American musical stage in which Bernstein had an abiding interest. As a result, the show can be enjoyed on a number of different levels, from a broadly comic, occasionally bawdy romp, to a satire of the bildungsroman, or coming of age story, to a dissection of the hypocrisy of society’s institutions.
With six major revisions over the years to choose from, every production of the show offers up challenges as to what will be included. In fact, it has been observed more than once that Candide, as a piece of musical theater, has a history almost as convoluted as the plot of Voltaire’s novel. Multiple books, lyricists and abridged, then expanded, productions engaged the talents of not just Hellman and Bernstein, but lyricist John LaTouche, poet laureate Richard Wilbur, James Agee and Stephen Sondheim. The legendary Dorothy Parker was even briefly involved, but left the project after writing lyrics for a single song with the comment that there were “too many geniuses” working on the production. Regardless of revision, though, the one thread which has tied it together over the decades is Leonard Bernstein’s witty, eclectic, inspired music, which pays homage to the full range of European musical traditions, from folk dances to Schönbergian tone rows.
The current L.A. Opera production of Candide, under the baton of James Conlon and directed by Francesca Zambello, springs from the version Zambello, as artistic director for the Glimmerglass Festival, created in 2015, using adaptations by John Caird of Hugh Wheeler’s book for the Hal Prince-produced Broadway revival, and much of Bernstein’s 1989 revision of his original score. As a result, this production does an excellent job of blending all previous revisions into a satisfying whole.
Maestro Conlon has a sure hand with Bernstein’s score, from the joy and bombast of the well-known overture to the subtle sadness of It Must Be Me in which Candide (Jack Swanson) doubts the optimism he learned from his teacher, Dr. Pangloss (Grammer). Because the score ranges so widely in musical styles, from gavotte, polka and Parisian-style waltz to the tango/klezmer hybrid of I Am Easily Assimilated, a highlight performance for Ebersole, it can be a challenging piece to find the heart of, a job Conlon takes on with both determination and humor, bringing a finely spirited and nuanced performance from the L.A. Opera Orchestra.
Over the years, productions of Candide have used a mix of voices from both the operatic and the musical theater tradition. This is certainly the case here, with Grammer and Ebersole, both veterans of the Broadway stage, in the roles of Voltaire/Pangloss and The Old Lady, respectively, sharing the stage with operatic tenor Jack Swanson (Candide) and coloratura Erin Morley (Cunégonde). The balance of voices works for the most part, although Swanson’s more lyric tenor has trouble competing with Morley’s powerful soprano on some of the couple’s duets, most notably the reunion song, You Were Dead, You Know.
Morley’s stunning voice shines on Glitter and Be Gay, a challenging number that is seen as the vocal showpiece of every production of Candide. Requiring the singer to hit no fewer than three E flat notes above high C, with more than a scattering of high C and D flat notes, it is an aria as formidable as most anything in the operatic repertoire, and Morley’s performance is a showstopper.
The four lead roles are ably assisted by a more than capable supporting cast and chorus, several singing multiple roles. Standout performances were Matthew Scollin’s Words, Words, Words as Martin, the pessimist counterpoint to the unflagging optimism of Grammer’s Pangloss, Taylor Raven’s Bon Voyage as cynical slaver Capt. Vanderdendur, a name that is a complex pun based on Dutch possessive cases, and Theo Hoffman’s turn as Cunégonde’s condescending, twice-dead brother, Maximillian.
Using James Noone’s minimal, but extraordinarily versatile multi-level stage set, clever choreography by Eric Sean Fogel, inventive lighting and a collection of boxes, benches and banners, the show easily and seamlessly moves from city to city and continent to continent, portraying the decadence of Venice and the glory of Eldorado with a sure ease.
From whatever level you choose to approach this show, be it comic diversion or socio-political commentary, this production and performance delivers. Despite the number of cooks involved in creating this particular banquet of musical theater, it presents no off flavors or less than fresh ingredients, regardless of its 60 year vintage.
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LA Opera: https://www.laopera.org/