Monday, 9 January 2017

Leonard Bernstein's CANDIDE at the New York City Opera

     All lovers of musicals of what is considered Broadway's Golden Age (one could argue that any era that could give us shows as excellent and varied as FUN HOME,  HAMILTON and DEAR EVAN HANSEN is also a Golden Age), know the messy story of Bernstein's CANDIDE. Even with its brilliant, eclectic score (sometimes bel canto parody, sometimes operetta), the show was a mess. The book (originally by Lillian Hellman), didn't work and the lyrics were the production of a number of brilliant poets and lyricists, but certainly not in the Broadway vein. From its short run in 1956 to the mid-seventies, the show survived on the basis of the Columbia cast album. Other than the brilliant Barbara Cook, the original cast was mostly comprised of opera singers with actor Max Adrian as Pangloss. Then in the mid-1970s, Harold Prince created a small-scale environmental production that moved from Off-Broadway to a long run at the Broadway Theatre. The seats were taken out, and a theatrical environment created in that large house. The large scale orchestration was reduced for thirteen players scattered around the house. The Hellman book was replaced by one by High Wheeler who was at the time the main book writer for the Sondheim-Prince collaborations (A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, SWEENEY TOOD). Wheller's book is an improvement on the original. It's consistent in tone, but one might argue that the tone is a bit too children's-theater-ish. Prince's take on the show was certainly carnivalesque. The young singers were more pop than opera and a comic actor played Pangloss, Voltaire, who now was narrator, and assorted other characters. When some years later, the New York City Opera asked Prince to create a production for them, he basically created a large-scale proscenium version of his earlier production; colorful, fun, but hollow. Lovers of the score could lament the many cuts and rearrangements of Bernstein's original, but the Prince production was a mainstay of the City Opera repertoire. Now, over three decades later, Prince has created a"new" production for the New York City Opera that isn't much different from his earlier versions. This is more a recreation than a rethinking. Chunks of the score are still missing including the beautiful "El Dorado" and most of the chorales. This would be fine for a Broadway production but one would expect an opera company to be more respectful of the score. But is this an opera production or a Broadway production? As in the 1970s, it has mainly been cast by Broadway performers. Only Cunegonde and Maximilian are performed by opera singers. Jay Armstrong Johnson who plays Candide, is a winning, immensely talented performed with a sweet, well trained singing voice. He can deliver the dialogue, and there is a lot of it, better than most operatic tenors would. His lack of an operatic voice can underscore Candide's youth and naivete, but this is supposedly a production by an opera company. This is not really a complaint. I admire Johnson's work as a performer, but it raises more questions about what CANDIDE is or should be. Meghan Picerno sings "Glitter and Be Gay" brilliantly and is a charming Cunegonde. Broadway veteran Gregg Edelman is funny in all the comic roles without being too hammy--always a temptation in this production. Linda Lavin, once a great Broadway belter, doesn't have a lot of singing voice left, but she manages to make a show stopper out of her big number "I Am Easily Assimilated" and be hilarious throughout without overplaying. The rest of the cast is fine, the chorus superb, and the orchestral playing good, though one didn't feel that Charles Prince (son of the director) is one of the world's great conductors.
     The production is full of lively movement. Clarke Dunham's sets are full of color as are Judith Dolan's costumes. It's a lovely looking production, though every bit as empty headed as its title character. Still, the score is gorgeous and the company does it justice. As usual, I got misty-eyed during that gorgeous final number, "Make Our Garden Grow." It's well worth seeing and hearing in the Rose Theatre, which is more like a European opera house than the giant barns in which American opera companies usually perform.    

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