Pair Of California Candides Prove No Two Are Alike

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Los Angeles Opera’s fully staged ‘Candide’ has Erin Morley as Cunegonde, Jack Swanson as Candide, and Christine
Ebersole as The Old Lady. James Conlon conducted. (LA Opera photos by Ken Howard)

By Richard S. Ginell

REVIEW – Will the dilemma of which version of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide to choose ever be resolved? It doesn’t look like it.

In January, as the Bernstein centenary season reached a crescendo in California, two major productions of Bernstein’s ever-morphing show took place in consecutive weeks. One was a semi-staged concert performance by the San Francisco Symphony in the hands of a leading Bernstein disciple, Michael Tilson Thomas. The other was a full Francesca Zambello production at Los Angeles Opera led by James Conlon – not a student of Bernstein but one who grew up in New York City at the time when Lenny was, in Conlon’s words, “Mr. Music” at the New York Philharmonic.

In San Francisco, Meghan Picerno was Cunegonde and Andrew Stenson was Candide.
(San Francisco Symphony photos by Kristen Loken)

Neither production resembled the other. Yet both were enormously satisfying in many ways while inevitably posing questions of what’s missing and does it matter.

But first, a bit of this piece’s convoluted history. Candide opened in 1956 and quickly sank after 73 performances, which on the Broadway scale of longevity spelled the word flop. Too solemn and didactic, the critics carped, with Lillian Hellman’s original book catching the most flak. But the show wouldn’t go away, thanks to the superb original cast recording of some of the score (Columbia, now Sony) that made it a cult item. There were many attempts to restructure the show over the next three decades – shuttling songs in and out and back into the score, changing the lyrics, locales, staging concepts, and even the overall tone.

Michael Tilson Thomas conducted in San Francisco.

Finally, with the prodding of conductor John Mauceri, who had already reshaped the piece repeatedly in previous editions, Bernstein himself got involved and adapted Mauceri’s 1988 Scottish Opera version for a live performance and recording (Deutsche Grammophon) in London that he led in 1989, less than a year before his death. At last, we thought at the time, here is the composer-authorized urtext for future directors to follow.

And yet – each production of Candide that I’ve seen since Bernstein’s passing has been different from the one that preceded it. Just as no one can agree on the category into which Candide should be shoved – comic operetta? comic opera? Broadway show? – there is no one version that is universally accepted.

For Tilson Thomas, going along with Bernstein’s final thoughts was the road map to Candide. His performance – which I caught on its last go-`round at Davies Symphony Hall the afternoon of Jan. 21 – was based firmly on the Scottish Opera version. Not only that, MTT tried to be faithful to his friend and role model to the point of adopting some of the mannerisms of Bernstein’s later years – the broad tempos early on, the search for deeper meaning in introspective songs like “It Must Be So” and “Candide’s Lament,” and bringing matters to a highly emotional head in the concluding anthem, “Make Our Garden Grow.” Yet he knew not to push too far in a lax direction, as Bernstein’s recording is sometimes prone to do – one example, “What’s the Use,” was restored to its livelier Broadway tempo. In some ways, MTT, his splendid orchestra, and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus outdid his mentor in what can be described as a loving rendition of the score.

Conductor James Conlon works with the LA Opera Candide, Jack Swanson.

But here again, this was not a literal reading of the composer’s final version. Dr. Pangloss’ “syphilis song,” “Dear Boy,” was missing; the important contrasting character of Martin the pessimist was dropped, along with his laughing song “Words, Words, Words”; and the cinematic orchestral introduction to the Eldorado scene was gone. There were bits of underscoring and an Afro-Cuban treatment of “I Am So Easily Assimilated” as an Act II overture that were new to me.

Six days later (Jan. 27) at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion downstate, LA Opera trotted out Zambello’s production, known as the Glimmerglass Festival version, which was in turn was based on John Caird’s 1999 Royal National Theatre version that itself was a new take on Hugh Wheeler’s 1973 book. (I warned you that Candide’s history is convoluted!) A lot of Caird’s book is straight out of Voltaire’s original novella. It follows Candide’s journey through Europe and South America pretty much as Voltaire laid it out, although the survivors of the story’s ridiculously prolific calamities end up in an Alpine valley instead of near Constantinople. Martin is restored to the cast, as is Candide’s sidekick Cacambo. There is a lot of spoken dialogue; the predominant feeling is that of a Broadway musical. Most of the editors and authors of past versions have claimed that they were trying to get closer to the spirit of Voltaire, yet this one may actually come the closest.

Actor Kelsey Grammer is Voltaire and Pangloss in Los Angeles.

But some songs present in San Francisco were missing in Los Angeles – the wonderfully buccaneering “The King’s Barcarolle,” “We Are Women,” and the Gilbert and Sullivan-like second “syphilis song” within the auto-da-fé scene. “Dear Boy” and “Words, Words, Words” went back in; the order of the Paris and Lisbon scenes was reversed. “What’s the Use” received a completely new, uncredited, surprisingly clever lyric that serves a different purpose in the story than the original by summing up the condition of the world. I could go on and on and on with a catalogue of musical and textural differences that only a Candide buff would love.

The most obvious difference in the two California Candides, of course, was in how they looked. San Francisco went the concert route, with the vocal soloists placed behind the orchestra in front of the chorus. Perhaps to make up for the lack of a full production with sets and extras, the cast acted up a storm and interacted with members of the chorus (some of whom donned Latin American hats for “I Am Easily Assimilated”). I wonder if Tilson Thomas, the grandson of two Yiddish Theatre stars, encouraged Sheri Greenawald to deliver as broad a Yiddish accent as possible for the part of the Old Lady.

In San Francisco, Sheri Greenawald was The Old Lady, with members of the chorus.

The Los Angeles Candide took place within the same all-purpose ramshackle-looking set, framed by an arch with a catwalk and staircase in the rear. Zambello could cut loose with lavish, colorful production numbers for “I Am Easily Assimilated” and the “Venice Gavotte” or try to generate sympathy for poor put-upon Candide on a lonely stage. She tried to illustrate the impossible – the golden utopia of Eldorado where everyone is kind, generous, loving, and worry-free – a mirth-producing display of glitter and glitz that undercut the deep emotion of Bernstein’s own favorite song of the show, “The Ballad of Eldorado.” Up until the final minutes, Zambello put the emphasis on fun and detached irony – much like the original novella – but after the “Venice Gavotte,” when disillusion sets in, the stage lighting suddenly went barren and pallid as if by the flick of a switch.

Both productions used the device of a narrator of the plot who doubled as Dr. Pangloss, the eternal optimist. In San Francisco, Michael Todd Simpson declaimed the narration effectively and sang Pangloss’ lines with a commanding baritone. Los Angeles designated the narrator as Voltaire himself and placed a star in the role, actor Kelsey Grammer, whose resonant thespian authority dominated the stage all night. It was as if Grammer’s famous TV character Frasier Crane were playing Voltaire; the stentorian tone and precise diction were the same and perfectly appropriate given Frasier’s intellectual pretensions. He sang reasonably well as a baritone Pangloss, too, though “What’s the Use” scraped the very bottom of his range.

Jack Swanson is a boyishly naive Candide in Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles Candide, Jack Swanson, projected the role’s usual boyish naïvete, sounding fuller in tone as he warmed up, while the San Francisco Candide, Andrew Stenson, injected an unusual amount of emotion into his part. Both Cunegondes – Meghan Picerno in San Francisco, Erin Morley in Los Angeles – easily executed the coloratura highs and comic lows of “Glitter and Be Gay,” with Picerno going further out on a limb toward hysteria.

Los Angeles’ Old Lady, Christine Ebersole, relished her lines with an occasional growl and not much of an accent – high-middle Polish or whatever. Peabody Southwell made a grandly sexual Paquette in L.A., Vanessa Becerra a sweetly sung one in San Francisco. The part of Vanderdendur, the crooked slave trader in the irresistible “Bon Voyage,” was sung by a male (as Bernstein wanted), Ben Jones, in San Francisco – and, inexplicably, by a female, Taylor Raven, in Los Angeles.

In contrast to Tilson Thomas’ invocation of a rich, dark Mahlerian symphonic texture, Conlon’s treatment sounded brighter, tighter, easily crossing back and forth between the zing of Broadway and more lyrically molded operatic phrasing. Tilson Thomas and the SFS definitely had the acoustical advantage of playing the score onstage while Conlon’s excellent LA Opera Orchestra was trapped in the pit, starved for reverberation. On the other hand, Conlon’s cast could be clearly understood at all times while many of the words were smudged in San Francisco, with no supertitles to reinforce them. Furthermore, Tilson Thomas had to slow down a bit in order to accommodate the wordplay of parts of the patter songs, whereas Conlon didn’t have to apply the brakes at all, thanks to the agility of his singers.

So which one was better? I’m going to cop out and say that I wouldn’t want to choose. I savored both productions – San Francisco for Tilson Thomas’ eloquent centenary homage to his friend’s miraculously inventive score; Los Angeles for an entertaining, more fully drawn immersion into Candide’s world. Different editions seen at different angles – each of them revealing a musical masterpiece.

The San Francisco production ran its course over four performances, but you can still catch Los Angeles Opera’s Candide Feb. 3-18.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.

Date posted: January 31, 2018

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  1. Great Article and review. Thanks!!!

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