In Twin Revivals, ‘Candide’ Glitters, NYC Opera, Too

Pangloss (Greg Edelman, center) and his dubious proposition set Bernstein’s ‘Candide’ in motion in Harold Prince’s tweaking of his 1982 production. (Photos by Sarah Shatz/New York City Opera)
By Susan Elliott

NEW YORK — As Americans dwell on what looks increasingly to become the worst of all possible worlds, what better time than the present to explore “the best of all possible worlds”? Such is the hero’s quest in Bernstein’s Candide, currently at the new New York City Opera with a ten-performance run (upped by demand from the original six) that opened Jan. 6 in the intimate, 1,200-seat Rose Theater at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Perhaps no director is more linked to the Voltaire-inspired operetta than Broadway’s multiple Tony-Award winning Harold Prince, 88, who tweaks the staging he created in 1982 for the New York City Opera, the company now revived just a year out of bankruptcy.

Candide (Jay Armstrong Johnson) reunites with Cunegonde (Meghan Picerno).

City Opera last undertook this iteration in 2008 at the former New York State Theater. The problems with the book remain, including the second act’s insistent return to the “Old World” from the first act’s successful exit from it – and some resulting tedium. But there is nonetheless much frolicking zaniness to enjoy, and the score remains among Bernstein’s most rewarding, with “Glitter and Be Gay,” “Make Our Garden Grow,” and “It Must Be So” among its greatest hits.

The question of whether Candide is an opera or a musical is easily answered in this staging with its Broadway-cred leads, all miked, and amplification in the pit as well. Charles (son of Harold) Prince conducts the 40-piece NYCO orchestra, which is sounding solid if not quite yet fully polished. (How one missed the full symphonic string complement in the glorious overture!) The robust vocalism and theatrical flair of the City Opera Chorus, on the other hand, were among the evening’s highlights.

The production opens on a commedia dell’arte-fashioned stage (Clarke Dunham, designer) flanked by balconies from which assorted numbers are delivered by Candide, bastard nephew of the Baron of Westphalia, and the Baron and Baroness’ daughter Cunegonde, beautiful but not nearly as beautiful as their son Maximilian, as he is happy to tell us repeatedly. Candide lives in the Baron’s castle until, having fallen in love with Cunegonde and being caught in the act by Maximilian, he is thrown out. Thus begins his search for “the best of all possible worlds,” which, his tutor Dr. Pangloss has taught him, does exist.

The Old Lady (Linda Lavin) with Candide (Jay Armstrong Johnson).

To the contrary, Candide encounters one disaster after another, including war, earthquake, the rape and murder of Cunegonde, death by inquisition of his beloved tutor Pangloss, etc. Across his travels, each of the main characters keeps reappearing, some in assorted guises: Pangloss (Gregg Edelman) is also Voltaire the narrator, a governor, a gambler, and a sage; the Baron (Brooks Ashmanskas) is also the Grand Inquisitor, an archbishop, a slave driver, and the pasha-prefect. Cunegonde (Meghan Picerno) manages to rise from the dead and show up in pretty much every scene, from Lisbon to El Dorado, as do Paquette (Jessica Tyler Wright) and the beautiful Maximilian (Keith Phares).

The opening scene’s carnival atmosphere, including choreographed cartwheels and wildly waving, colorfully costumed (by Judith Dolan) choristers, launches a mostly sprightly first act. There is much racing up and down of balcony stairs along with quick asides, double takes, eyeball rolling, and enough ham to feed an army of hungry warriors. Thanks to Linda Lavin, as the Old Lady, and Chip Zien, who plays Don Issachar the Jew (complete with pigtails), the Judge, and assorted other characters, Borscht Belt humor is in abundance. One hopes there is still some scenery left by the end of the run.

Elsewhere, the hard-working cast makes a winning impression. Edelman steers the ship with easy command as the narrator, crisscrossing the fourth wall without missing a beat; as the ever-innocent Candide, Jay Armstrong Johnson is positively adorable, winning over the audience early on with “It Must Be So,” sung as he walks across a seated row of knees and feet in the orchestra. Picerno tackled “Glitter and Be Gay” fearlessly, showing off her solid coloratura chops and handling the role’s other quasi operatic challenges with ease (and a microphone). She was also an impressive comedienne, and she and Johnson made an endearing pair.

Cunegonde, the Old Lady, and Candide shipboard en route to the New World.

Phares was an amusing self-admiring Maximilian but also effectively silly in the role of the female servant, coconut breasts and all. Ashmanskas’ flamboyance was brilliantly funny at times, especially when skipping about the stage as a pocketbook-swinging bishop. Wright plays the perky Paquette, just as she did in the company’s 2008 staging.

Candide marks the City Opera’s third fully staged opera production since it re-launched in January 2016 with a Tosca that was met with mixed reviews. And while the new company may justifiably lay claim to Candide, given the 1982 staging, the work’s lack of grand-opera bona fides does beg the question of what direction this resuscitated organization is headed. Up next this season is a Valentine’s Day Concert, followed by Respighi’s La Campana Sommersa; Los Elementos, a Spanish chamber opera by the 18th-century composer Antoni di Literes; and the New York premiere of Péter Eötvös’ Angels in America, from the Tony Kushner play. Is there a niche here? Not yet, but let’s give them time to find one.

Candide runs through Jan. 15. For more information, click here.

Susan Elliott, former classical music and dance critic for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, is the editor of

Clarke Dunham designed the production, which opens on a commedia dell’arte-fashioned stage flanked by balconies.