David Patrick Stearns is the classical music critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, a contributor to WRTI-FM in Philadelphia and a frequent contributor to Gramophone and Opera News magazine.
Review: New York City Opera's 'Candide'
Monday, January 09, 2017 - 12:00 AM
The resurrected New York City Opera was destined to bring back Candide — one of the big artistic and box office successes of the old days — and was bound to do so soon considering that production mastermind Harold Prince is age 88. So there it was, with a bit of déjà vu: Last year at this time, the company produced Tosca in a replica of the opera's original production and on the cusp of a significant snow storm.
Now, the Prince/NYC Opera Candide, which opened this past Friday on a snowy weekend for a 10-performance run, turned the clock back to 1982, when Candide established itself in a Broadway/operetta hybrid that effectively insured its future. The original 1956 version was one of Broadway's most notorious flops — despite or because of its all-star collaboration between Leonard Bernstein, Lillian Hellman, Richard Wilbur and Voltaire — but was revised in 1973 by Prince and Stephen Sondheim as a ragingly theatrical romp, thereafter expanded for the 1982 City Opera version.
Now that Candide is a staple, the Prince version of the picaresque 18th century tale of the hapless young hero being batted around the globe by earthquakes, executions, wars and more, can't be counted on for novelty. But before I start quibbling, let me say that the City Opera's new incarnation — even in the initially sleepy Saturday matinee I heard — delivers lively, enveloping entertainment, great for a date night with its tuneful score showing Bernstein at his best in a circus-cum-vaudeville style production. It's rich in sight gags that make a more vivid impression in the Rose Theater than at the company's previous (and more cavernous) home at the David Koch Theater. The intelligently chosen cast features operatic voices where needed and big Broadway personalities when not. And not just any Broadway personalities: The 79-year-old Linda Lavin makes a magnetic guest appearance as The Old Lady, performing the showstopper "I Am Easily Assimilated" maybe not with the physical animation of years past, but with the kind of mastery that makes every movement, word and note count.
The production has little representational pretense: It's like high-budget garage theater — this is a compliment — with actors donning a variety of wigs in plain sight in a broad acting style. Maybe too broad. The humanity of the characters is especially lost in the first half hour, partly because Gregg Edelman, who plays Voltaire, Dr. Pangloss and others, is an actor gifted more at character-driven comedy, even though the craft of his performance, not to mention his general command of the stage, significantly holds the sprawling plot together. Prince has favored Broadway voices for the title role, and though Jay Armstrong Johnson's is lightweight even by those standards, the total musical and acting package has a vulnerability that gives weight to the satire all around him. As his would-be bride Cunegonde, Meghan Picerno handles the notorious coloratura of "Glitter and Be Gay" well, and under Prince's direction, delivers an arc from innocence to lighthearted corruption. Chip Zien plays a number of incidental characters, often ones that would seem like unsavory ethnic stereotypes without his blasts of theatrical energy.
Stereotypes? Time has SO moved on since 1982. The bawdiness of the Prince version harkens back to pre-AIDS New York City. Musically and politically, you miss a lot in a show that was born in the wake of the McCarthy-era witch hunts and all the twisted logic that went with it. Also, this version has maybe 60 percent of the music written for the show over the years. In 1989, Bernstein collected it all together for a concert version and recording, admitting that it was probably too long and sprawling to be stageworthy. However, the 1999 version by John Caird/National Theatre of Great Britain restored that edge by going back to Voltaire's novella. Robert Carsen's irreverent 2006 Théâtre du Châtelet production in Paris had the KKK doing a kickline and a computer-animated Voltaire giving the audience the finger. The 2014 Boston Symphony Orchestra concert version successfully re-contextualized Candide as an outgrowth of Gilbert & Sullivan.
So the City Opera Candide feels like Rimsky-Korsakov's air-brushed version of Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov — it was essential for keeping the piece alive, but was destined to have a limited life. Even so, this armchair Candide-ologist was able to accept this version on its own theatrically solid terms — aside from the finale, when Candide & Co. decide their route to inner salvation lay in rolling up their sleeves and working with the earth, leading to "Make Our Garden Grow." Other versions earn that song with an intense moral crisis. Not here. But it's still a great song.