Bernstein: Candide

New York City Opera

Lincoln Center, 11 April 2008 2.5 stars


Great musicals, so they say, are not written but rewritten. Yet in the case of Candide, all those revisions still left the world with a problematic work of art.

On the one hand, elements of Leonard Bernstein's score suggest a masterpiece of satire, matching the Voltaire novella on which the musical is based. Just as the French Enlightenment philosopher lampooned idealism at a time when his German counterpart Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz's theory of 'metaphysical optimism' was in vogue, so too did Bernstein turn to musical conventions to help create a satire on the anti-Communist McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950s. Examples include a witty pastiche of Marguerite's Jewel Song from Faust, which became Cunegonde's 'Glitter and Be Gay', a song underlining corruption; a mock-eighteenth-century contrapuntal number, 'The Best of All Possible Worlds', which underlines the false optimism and pretensions of the philosopher character, Doctor Pangloss; and a number in which the public comes to witness an auto-da-fé with glee, emphasising the horrors of the modern-day Washington witch-hunts. All of this, plus sections such as the moving finale, 'Make Our Garden Grow', show Candide at its considerable best.

CandideBut even the excellent score can't make up for the fact that the book is deeply flawed. The original Lillian Hellman script of 1956 has long been withdrawn, and numerous subsequent revivals have attempted to create something better suited to the light satire of the score than Hellman's book, which was heavily criticised in the first production. The 1973 version made drastic changes and had a new book by Hugh Wheeler; a recent production by Robert Carsen – which courted controversy in Paris and Milan and is soon to be seen at English National Opera – brought the piece into the modern day. New York City Opera's 1982 version, originally instigated by Beverly Sills, uses the Wheeler book and incorporates numerous sections of music that had been discarded over the years. The result of all this reworking of a problematic piece is a curate's egg.

So while the NYCO's current revival of 'The Opera House Version' (as the Playbill refers to it) is entertaining at its best, there are dreadful longueurs – especially in an overlong second act which is notably lacking in high-quality musical numbers compared to the first.

Harold Prince's production has been heavily criticised in many quarters, but for me it does an admirable job of rendering a convoluted story as clearly as possible. Clarke Dunham's sets facilitate quick transitions between the scenes and through their self-consciousness (false proscenia, an onstage wind machine, a boat to take the characters to the New World, a model of a mountain and so on) promote the idea that the musical is a philosophical lesson given by Voltaire, who appears as a character, rather than a conventional, serious narrative. Some reviews have commented on the unnecessary omnipresence of the chorus, but in fact this is a deliberate mechanism to feed into the Enlightenment notion of learning through experience, and also reinforces the image of the Common Man, more obviously represented by Candide. Considering the production is so busy with action in and around the theatre, Arthur Masella has directed the revival with flair and reasonable comic timing, though many of the jokes fall flat (I thought it didn't help to have supertitles, which anticipated the lyrics to the songs and made the audience laugh before the singers had actually delivered their lines). The main problem is that the production focuses on telling the story rather than explaining the meaning behind it; considering that the characters survive earthquakes, a hanging and an auto-da-fé, many will surely be baffled as to what Bernstein and his associates were trying to get at and indeed may even wonder if there's a point to it at all.

CandideOnly one of the performers was entirely satisfying on the second night of the run, when I saw it: Kyle Pfortmiller's characterisation of Maximilian was as humorously narcissistic as it should be, a clear demonstration that the piece can work when it's put in the right hands, and his voice was consistently excellent when both singing and speaking. Although the rest of the performers all had much to offer, none attained the same standard: Richard Kind's multi-functioning narrator was strong on the acting and comedy but very weak on the singing, as was Daniel Reichard's Candide; Lielle Berman gave a convincing performance of 'Glitter and Be Gay' but in general I found her singing voice too light, especially in the lower register. Jessica Wright's Paquette, Judith Blazer's Old Lady and Robert Ousley's Baron offered spirited support, but ultimately this was not a distinguished cast and the chorus was notably underpowered until the stirring finale. George Manahan's conducting was solid and loving but needed much more vibrancy if the work's many creaky corners were to be navigated without a hitch.

At its best, this revival gives a hint of what one of Broadway's most elusive masterpieces might be about, but the peaks are few and I'm afraid that I wasn't entirely sorry when it came to an end.

By Dominic McHugh

Picture credits: Carol Rosegg