Mark Gresham | 7 MAR 2023
You’re never gonna keep me down.
In my youth, three influences turned me on to the possibilities of opera. One was the recording of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, the 1959 three LP set recording of the Orchestra Of The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, with the composer conducting and starring Peter Pears as Grimes. Another was Ingmar Bergman’s 1975 film version of Mozart’s opera Die Zauberflöte, made for Swedish television and subsequently released in movie theaters, with baritone Håkan Hagegård as Papageno.
The third, first in chronological order and the most relevant here, was seeing Harold Prince’s one-act revival of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide at The Broadway Theatre in New York City, starring Lewis J. Stadlen playing five roles: Voltaire, Pangloss, and three other characters. Especially noteworthy was the remarkable, immersive set by the late Eugene Lee, who passed away just last month.
I have been waiting nearly 50 years for a subsequent production of Candide to impress me as much and ignite my imagination.
I am still waiting.
The problem with The Atlanta Opera’s new production of Candide, which opened Saturday at Cobb Energy Center, is not the cast, set, costumes, lighting, and the like—all fine in this context.
The primary culprit is the libretto for this production, which is especially deadly in the second act.
The original Candide, first performed in 1956 with a libretto by American playwright Lillian Hellman, was a flop. That is granted. But some of Bernstein’s music—notably the “Overture” and “Glitter and Be Gay”—proved successful enough for it to migrate to the concert hall.
It remained so until, and without Bernstein’s direct involvement, Candide underwent a revival as a one-act, 115-minute production directed by Harold Prince, with a new book by Hugh Wheeler, and a much smaller theater orchestra, playing first in 1973 at the Chelsea Theater Center in the Brooklyn Academy of Music and then at the Broadway Theatre in Midtown Manhattan the following year, closing in 1976 after 740 performances. That version won a total of four Tony Awards in 1974, for Best Book of a Musical, Best Direction of a Musical, Best Scenic Design, and Best Costume Design, out of a total of eight nominations. That was the version I first witnessed as a young man.
Despite that success, stuffier types criticized the Tony winner as “a mere romp” and not sufficiently “operatic,” and Candide was expanded to a two-act “opera house version” containing more of Bernstein’s music, which the New York City Opera performed in 1982. Then in 1988, Bernstein, John Mauceri, and John Wells produced another version of Candide for Scottish Opera. After attending the final rehearsals in Glasgow, Bernstein made more changes, creating a “final revised version” he conducted in 1989 for Deutsche Grammophon.
Since then, there have been various revivals of different versions, some with even more tweaking of the libretto and music selections. To this day, Candide remains chameleonic as an opera, with changes made by the presenting company, including edits to suit contemporary social checkboxes.
I am fully aware that the 1999 libretto version by John Caird, adapted by lineage from Hugh Wheeler’s book, is considered the current standard in the operatic world, regardless of how many further tweaks a company like The Atlanta Opera may make to it in practice (even at the loss of much comedy, including pointed sexual, religious, and ethnic humor).
Still, I’m not in the least convinced that it is the best of all possible Candide librettos nor the closest to Voltaire’s spirit (or substance). A movie does not necessarily follow the plot of a novel it is based upon, step for step; neither does opera. Sometimes they can be quite different. (Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi film, Blade Runner, adapted from Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, is a prime example—the original book couldn’t be more different from its film counterpart.) New medium, essentially a new work.
But the goal here of production director Alison Moritz and conductor James Lowe (judging by my recent interview with Moritz) seems to have been to include as much of Bernstein’s music as possible into the stage work, then stitch it together with Caird’s version of the libretto re-edited to suit our 21st century times, one way or another. That did not work.
The first act was a bit slow theatrically though it had the best musical thread, but the second act mostly stagnated until the final number, “Make Our Garden Grow.” In addition to the second act’s lack of momentum, much of the music was rehashing tunes from the first act in inferior settings, while some simply wasn’t up to snuff compared to Bernstein’s better numbers in the score. (Worth remembering that even Beethoven was capable of writing a “Wellington’s Victory.”)
Kick-starting the end of the second act required a sudden, last-minute spat between Pangloss and Martin, necessitating intervention by the pragmatism of Candide in order to introduce the final morality chorus, “Make Our Garden Grow,” followed by the dullest of all possible closing spoken lines to the audience: “Any questions?”
By contrast, in Wheeler’s 1973 one-act book, a cow is standing with the ensemble, and at the end of “Make Our Garden Grow” the cow moos woefully, then come the final lines:
Paquette: “It’s lurching.”
Cunegonde: “It’s swaying.”
Old Lady: “It’s falling.”
(The cow crumples in a heap, dead, which Voltaire briefly examines.)
Voltaire: “Ah, me. The pox.”
In that ending, we see that even Candide’s new-found agrarian pragmatism could not ultimately assure asylum against the challenges and miseries of life. Instead, it is a way of dealing with them. I would contend that ending is more in Voltaire’s spirit than the virtue signaling of the final chorus followed by the truly tepid “Any questions?”
The good news for this Atlanta Opera production of Candide includes, first and foremost, the capable cast.
Top accolades go to soprano Deanna Breiwick as Cunegonde, with the highlight of her performance being the coloratura showstopper, “Glitter and Be Gay,” with its acrobatic execution and E♭4-E♭6 vocal range. Though I am not generally a fan of “just stand there and sing,” this is a song that a singer can present within a small stage space. She doesn’t need to roam across the stage or make large choreographic movements, as in this performance. This one is most effective when centered on the voice, with few wild gesticulations in the acting.
In the title role of Candide, Jack Swanson allowed the character’s personality to evolve slowly from naïve to experienced, but without striking personality. His voice was clear and lyrical throughout most of the performance, only pushing it a little late in Act II. But the orchestra played above him at times, though not wholly overwhelming him. This was not his first Candide, having previously sung the role at the Lausitz Festival in Görlitz, Germany.
Kevin Burdette, as both Voltaire and Pangloss, was essential in holding the meandering thread of the story together. Despite the shortcomings of this version of the libretto, his superb sense of comic timing greatly benefitted the show. As Pangloss, he used his mellifluous bass singing voice fully rather than resorting to frequent sprechstimme as some singing actors have done. Burdette has repeatedly proven his comic and dramatic capabilities over multiple Atlanta Opera productions ever since his 2016 debut with the company as the Pirate King in The Pirates of Penzance.
Deborah Bowman, who made her Atlanta Opera debut last June as Fraülein Kost in Cabaret, offered comic relief (even though many great lines did not appear in this version) and was a strong character voice for “I Am Easily Assimilated.”
One would easily guess that, because of the libretto, this number did not come across as what it is: a parody of the Habanera (“L’amour est un oiseau rebelle”) from Bizet’s Carmen, which enamors all the men around her. If you have ever seen an aging mezzo-soprano attempt to portray Carmen, you get it immediately. (I have, but I will be gracious and not name the late, very famous singer here.)
It’s quite likely that the Old Lady was quite a seductress in her youth, but in her senior years, the men of Cadiz find her dance more distracting than inflammatory. The piece is a tango rather than a habanera, so the underlying orchestra music felt slightly on the slow side and without the needed sexy rhythmic edge. It felt a little toned-down in that respect.
Two other pivotal primary characters were the serving maid Paquette and Maximillian, Cunegonde’s brother, ably played by mezzo Gretchen Krupp and baritone Craig Irvin respectively, who have important roles in the beginning scenes (“Life Is Happiness” and “The Best of all Possible Worlds”) until Candide’s ouster from Westphalia, and appear at significant points on and off afterward.
Unlike the single roles of Paquette and Maximilian, Victor Ryan Robertson and Curtis Bannister were tasked with portraying multiple roles: Robertson played the Governor, Vanderdenur, the Baron, and Ragotski, while Bannister portrayed Martin (the foil to Pangloss), the Sea Captain, and the Grand Inquisitor.
Tenor Tyler Nelson handily portrayed the easily-overlooked role of Cacambo, the only character who inspires perfect confidence, and whose first appearance in Act II is as unexplained as the disappearance of the Fool after Act III of King Lear.
The creative team’s work (scenic, costumes, lighting, et al.) supported and allowed space for Moritz’s stage direction to play out to the best advantage. And as far as what I’ve seen of various two-act productions of Candide, whether live or filmed, it was near the top of that heap. Thankfully, also, it wasn’t one of those ghastly commedia dell’arte stagings that sometimes crop up, which I truly despise.
All in all, I can best sum it up in the words of my companion for the show: “I feel like I was supposed to enjoy it more than I did.”
Still, I wouldn’t discourage you from going to see Candide if you love Bernstein’s music and are going for the singing and the songs, rather than the story in which they are ensconced.
But I’ve now reached the point in life where it’s the last nail in the coffin for any hope of a two-act version of Candide fulfilling that same awesomeness that I experienced in 1974 with Harold Prince’s one-act Tony-winning production. And with some “pragmatic optimism,” I’ll continue to await the possibility that someone, somewhere, will revive that version in the near future. ■
The Atlanta Opera will perform Candide again on March 7, 10 & 12, 2023, at Cobb Energy Center.
- The Atlanta Opera: atloantaopera.org