By Don Heckman
Thursday was Leonard Bernstein night at the Hollywood Bowl – a concert performance of his too rarely heard operetta, Candide. With Bramwell Tovey conducting a musical congregation that included the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Master Chorale and an impressive line up of singers, the potential for a memorable evening seemed high. And it didn’t take long for the potential to become reality.
At the time of its creation, Candide was expected to be Bernstein’s breakthrough theatre work of the mid-‘50s. Based on a novella by Voltaire, created in the company of Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, Richard Wilbur and others, underscored by a political subtext inspired by the right wing witch hunts of the period, it seemed to have all the pieces in the right place for a Broadway hit. But maybe it had too many pieces. Opening in December of 1956, it closed in less than three months. Within a year, the arrival of West Side Story refocused Bernstein, and his audience, in a very different direction.
Since then, the operetta has been morphed through a variety of different versions, not always with Bernstein’s participation in the production. But the interpretation performed on this night was his, reassembled in the late ‘80s with the aid of John Mauceri (former director of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra), into an adaptation presumably reflecting Bernstein’s final desires.
It was easy – especially in this dynamic performance — to understand why he was pleased with it. The libretto has always had intentionally bizarre passages of dramatic absurdity: Cunegonde’s repeated loss of her virginity, the utterly casual leaps from one part of the world to another, the repeated examples of convenient coincidence. But in this version, narrated with Gilbert & Sullivan panache by baritone Richard Suart (who also sang the roles of Pangloss and Martin), the absurdities became the sources of one hilarious moment after another.
Ultimately, however, it was Bernstein’s music that made it all come together. And one could argue that Candide includes the most colorful, diverse collection of elements, styles, genres, rhythms and harmonies of all his works – including West Side Story, even though there are passages in both works that recall aspects of the other.
And, lacking sets, staging, allowing only occasional gestural interaction between the singers, this performance nonetheless blossomed to life from the first notes of the overture, via Bernstein’s mesmerizing score and the interpretive intensity of the support provided by Tovey, the orchestra and the choir.
The singers responded brilliantly. “Glitter and Be Gay,” perhaps the best known song, is technically difficult but filled with immense potential for the right singer. And soprano Anna Christy was the right singer, her vocal virtuosity fully matched by her physical charms. Tenor Alek Shrader, portraying Candide, brought a believable tenderness to the role, his soaring voice especially convincing with the subtleties of his final song, “Nothing More Than This.” Suart, superbly handling his difficult assignment of narration, acting and singing, kept the wildly twisting story arc alive. And mezzo Frederica von Stade, the cast’s operatic superstar, brought power, projection and atmospheric believability to the shifting character of Old Lady.
The only less than delightful aspect of this extraordinary event was the awareness that it was a one night performance only. Having surged back to life in such extraordinary fashion, Candide deserves a longer run – even without sets or staging.
Photo courtesy of CBS