Francesca Zambello, long an advocate for presenting classics of American theater in opera houses, chose Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” to stage for the 2015 Glimmerglass Festival.
When compared with Bernstein’s blockbuster hit “West Side Story”, whose composition was contemporaneous, “Candide” has been considered unsuccessful.
[Below: David Garrison as the poet-dramatist Voltaire; edited image, based on a Dory Schultz photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]
Yet it is vintage Bernstein, with ingenious lyrics, lively songs, and big production numbers. Its attraction to Zambello and Conductor Joseph Colaneri (the Glimmerglass music director) is easily discernible.
The plot of “Candide” and the Zambello Production
Zambello, utilizing multi-level sets by James Noone with vibrant costumes designed by Jennifer Moeller, has created colorful visual scenes through which “Candide’s” characters romp.
[Below: a visit to Spain; edited image, based on a Dory Schultz photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]
The opera’s protagonist, Candide (played by Minnesota tenor Andrew Stenson) is the illegitimate offspring of a noble relative who has been privileged to grow up in the household of a Westphalian baronial family. Candide is tutored in the philosophy of “Optimism” with the baron’s children by Doctor Pangloss (played by New Jersey actor/baritone David Garrison).
However, when Candide proposes to marry the baron’s legitimate daughter Cunegonde (Connecticut soprano Kathryn Lewek), he is kicked out of the baron’s household, is quickly recruited into the Bavarian army and begins a series of adventures.
[Below: Andrew Stenson as Candide; edited image, based on a Dory Schultz photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]
Candide learns the horrors of human existence on the battlefield, in lands governed by the Spanish Inquisition, in Lisbon at the time of its horrendous (historical) earthquake. He encounters various disasters in the New World and Venice that include murders, robbery, and human enslavement.
However, each of the ostensibly tragic events is written to be silly satire. The various geographical settings allow for Zambello’s delightful production numbers.
[Below: the Spanish Inquisition sponsors an auto-da-fe; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]
The Musical Performance
Andrew Stenson, who is rarely offstage, made a strong impression in the title role of “Candide”. His character’s love interest is Cunegonde, Kathryn Lewek, whose brilliantly performed showpiece aria Glitter and Be Gay is the musical’s best known number.
[Below: Kathryn Lewek as Cunegonde; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]
[Below: Doctor Pangloss (David Garrison, second from left), tutors a baronial household that consists of Maximilian (Christian Bowers, left), Candide (Andrew Stenson, center, standing), Cunegonde (Kathryn Lewek, second from right) and Pacquette (Kristen Choi, right); edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]
Broadway star David Garrison acted (and sang) the dual roles of Voltaire and Doctor Pangloss. The Tony nominee and Helen Hayes award winner was not only funny, but was impressive in his ability to impart long stretches of dialogue from these loquacious characters. Pangloss’ paean to sexually transmitted disease – Dear Boy – was delivered hilariously.
New York baritone Christian Bowers, who had sung a lead role in last season’s Glimmerglass Festival [see Review: Tobias Picker’s “American Tragedy”, Extensively Revised, Debuts at Glimmerglass Festival – July 20, 2014] dispatched the juicy role of Maximilian with distinction.
Bowers’ co-star in Picker’s opera, Maine mezzo-soprano Cynthia Cook, sang two roles in Bernstein’s musical – the Baroness and the pirate Vanderdendur.
Other standouts in the cast were California mezzo-soprano Kristen Choi as Pacquette, Michigan bass-baritone Michael Scollin as Martin, Utah tenor Andrew Marks Maughan as Cacambo and Pennsylvania mezzo-soprano Marietta Simpson as the Old Lady.
[Below: a visit to the utopian land of El Dorado; edited image, based on a Dory Schultz photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]
The ensemble consisted of 19 Glimmerglass Festival Young Artists: New Jersey soprano Olivia Barbieri, New York tenor Marco D. Cammarota, Mexican mezzo-soprano Claudia Chapa, Illinois soprano Amanda Lauren Compton, California tenor Giovanni Da Silva, Texas baritone Ben Edquist (who is also Papageno in this season’s production of Mozart’s “Magic Flute”), Virginia baritone Cole Francum, Iowa soprano Raquel Gonzalez, North Carolina baritone Andrew Harper, New York soprano/dancer Katherine Henly, Wisconsin soprano Jeni Houser, Michigan tenor Nicholas Nestorak (who is also Monostatos in Mozart’s “Magic Flute”), Texas tenor Brad Raymond, Connecticut mezzo-soprano Aleksandra Romano, Austrian basso Anthony Schnieder, California mezzo-soprano Corrie Stallings, California baritone Brian Vu, Minnesota tenor Brian Wallin and Texas soprano Maren Weinberger.
The Evolution of Bernstein’s “Candide”
Bernstein and his principal librettists Lillian Hellman (the “book”) and Richard Wilbur (the “lyrics”) were drawn to Voltaire’s novella. Many of the distinguished literati of the 1950s contributed to the work.
Satirizing the “optimistic” philosophy of Gottfried von Leibnitz and English poet Alexander Pope, Voltaire took aim at a God that would permit the human evils and natural disasters Voltaire observed all around him if God had the power to prevent them.
[Below: Matthew Scollin as Martin; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]
During the early 1950s when Bernstein’s work was first conceived, Bernstein, Hellman and many of their friends had been personally entangled in McCarthyism and its “investigative” overreach. The analogies with the fate of Voltaire’s novella (“Candide” was burned in Geneva, placed on the Vatican Index, and banned in many localities) proved irresistible to Bernstein and Hellman.
“Candide” in Modern Times
In our contemporary world, human evil and natural disasters continue to plague us.
One can argue, however, that there is a disconnect between Voltaire’s bitter satire and the 21st century. The idea that we live in a “perfect world” ordained by a benevolent God, is simply not a prevailing philosophy. We don’t need to be convinced that evil exists (nor, for that matter, did the original audiences in the 1950s!)
[Below: The Old Lady (Marietta Simpson, left) dances with a Spaniard (Giovanni Da Silva, right); edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]
I’m not convinced that the message that Voltaire intended to convey in his episodic storyline is, in itself, the reason for mounting “Candide” in the 21st century.
However, Francesca Zambello proposes a thematic connection to modern audiences. She argues that while the character “Candide can’t explain the [flawed universe], he turns his attention to what he can do – and encourages his friends to do the same”
Yet, ultimately, it’s not the show’s message, but Bernstein’s music, which is at once glitzy and sophisticated, that is the reason for presenting “Candide” in 2015, as well as the work’s abundant opportunities for show-stopping production numbers.
The Glimmerglass Festival audience for the production’s first night obviously felt that high-spirited fun, lively music and spectacle provided enough of a reason for presenting the show.
I recommend this to all who seek light-hearted musical theater, well-sung and acted.