Arts & Events

Bernstein’s CANDIDE A Hit in Hayward

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday December 05, 2014 - 10:13:00 AM

On Sunday, November 30, I journeyed to Hayward’s Douglas Morrisson Theatre for a performance of Leonard Bernstein’s opera Candide. Somehow, this 1956 opera had thus far eluded me, so I jumped at the chance to hear it. My effort was rewarded by a robust performance of Candide featuring a huge cast of soloists, chorus members, and a 14-piece orchestra conducted by David Möschler.  

Bernstein, who had earlier seen his first opera, Trouble in Tahiti, premiered at Brandeis University in 1952, and had not yet completed his score for West Side Story, began work on Candide by persuading Lillian Hellman to write an adaptation of Voltaire’s 1759 novella of the same title. Poet Richard Wilbur was engaged to write the lyrics, and, as the work took shape, additional lyrics were supplied by Stephen Sondheim, John LaTouche, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, and Bernstein himself. The final libretto for Candide offers a condensed yet faithful adaptation of Voltaire’s original Candide.  

Voltaire, perhaps the most famous of the 18th century French philosophes, intended Candide as a scathing satire of the “All is for the best“ worldview of German philosopher G.W. Leibnitz. Voltaire put his naive principal character, Candide, through a picaresque series of misadventures in many lands on multiple continents. Bernstein’s opera does likewise. In Hayward, the Douglas Morrisson Theatre used the Royal National Theatre Version of Bernstein’s Candide from London in a new version by John Caird, directed by Michael Mohammed. 

After a jazzy overture, Voltaire himself appears onstage, played here by Tom Reilly. His is largely a speaking role, though in Act II he does get a few chances to sing. In this production, his major function is as narrator. Voltaire introduces the character Candide as a young fellow of “unaffected simplicity.“ Candide, sung by tenor Andres Ramirez, offers a brief aria expressing his optimistic view of life. (Voltaire’s title was actually, Candide, ou L’Optimisme/Candide, or Optimism.) Then Candide is joined by his mentor, Pangloss, sung by baritone Geoffrey Colton, who 

leads Candide, his girlfriend Cunegonde, and various other characters in a chorus asserting that “This is the best of all possible worlds.“ (Pangloss is a stand-in for Leibnitz.)  

Among the principals, Andres Ramirez stood out as Candide, singing with a lilting lyricism and vibrant timbre. As Pangloss, baritone Geoffrey Colton gave a vocally assured performance; and, as Cunegonde, soprano Angela Jarosz offered a mixed bag of vocal acrobatics, sometimes reaching great hights of coloratura yet sounding shrill and squeaky in lower passages. One never knew what to expect from Jarosz; and this gave a certain air of mystery and tension to what otherwise might have been devoid of drama. Among secondary characters, soprano Anna Joham was excellent as Paquette, a peasant maid of easy virtue; tenor Johnny Villar gave an arch performance as Maximilian, the gay brother of Cunegonde; and mezzo soprano Tina Marzell was a vibrant Old Woman. Tenor Carlo Olmos ably sang the role of Cacambo, a loyal friend to Candide; and baritone Kenneth Keel sang several roles, most notably the Governor of Montevideo as well as Martin, a misanthropist who tries in vain to disabuse Candide of his optimism.  

Leonard Bernstein, ever the polyglot composer, filched or parodied music of all sorts in this opera. To Cunegonde he gave musical passages right out of Viennese operetta, then inserted Handelian coloratura passages, and even parodied Spanish fandango rhythms, also offering ditties right out of Broadway musicals. Bernstein as a composer is both glib and somehow beguiling. 

The plot begins when Candide is conscripted into the Westphalian army. In battle, Candide is horrified to see his comrades in arms slaughter entire villages of innocent civilians. Candide also learns that the enemy has slaughtered his own village and that Cunegonde was killed. Candide deserts the army and makes his way to Spain. Meanwhile, Cunegonde has survived and is taken to Spain by a soldier who sells her into sex-slavery to two religious clerics of different faiths, a Catholic and a Jew. In true ecumenical fashion, these worthy clerics agree to share Mademoiselle Cunegonde’s sexual favors in strict rotation, They compete with one another by lavishing precious jewelry on Cunegonde. When Candide discovers that Cunegonde is alive but mired in sex-slavery, he tries to rescue her and is violently attacked by both clerics, whom he kills in self-defense. Candide and Cunegonde flee Spain as fugitives, with Cunegonde bitterly lamenting all the precious jewels she left behind, gifts from her rival clerics. Arriving in Lisbon, Candide and Cunegonde are nearly buried alive in the disastrous earthquake of 1756.  

From Lisbon the plot takes Candide’s entourage to South America. In Montevideo, Cunegonde allows herself to be seduced by the governor, with whom she runs off, leaving Candide broken-hearted. Perhaps the musical highlight of this opera was the Governor of Montevideo’s seduction aria, so beautifully and fervently sung by baritone Kennethn Keel that one almost forgave Cunegonde this betrayal of Candide. Wandering broken-hearted in the mountains of Paraguay, Candide encounters a utopian society called El Dorado, where all citizens share equally in the wealth of the community. Candide and his friend Cacambo are treated as welcome guests and given great wealth in diamonds. It’s not clear, even in Voltaire’s novella, if this is an homage to his friend Rousseau’s notion of the “noble savage“ or if this is yet another satire on optimistic utopian visions. Suffice it to say that things end badly for Candide and Cacambo once they depart El Dorado.  

After more sea voyages, including attacks by Barbary pirates and a stop in Morocco, Candide returns again to Europe, eventually making his way to Venice, where his friend Cacambo has promised to meet him with Cunegonde in tow. In Venice, Candide does in fact meet up with Cunegonde, but in the meantime she has grown old and ugly. Candide bitterly reproaches Cunegonde for her many betrayals, and he stalks off saying he wants nothing to do with her. But a sudden epiphany occurs when Candide espies six former kings now reduced to poverty. Realizing how fickle is fate, Candide rouses his friends and leads them into the mountains, where they settle on a plot of land and vow to “cultivate their garden.“ Work on the soil, Candide realizes, is the best man can do in this otherwise sordid world. Candide marries Cunegonde in spite of her now less than beautiful appearance, and he leads his friends in a final chorus, “Make our garden grow.“ Thus ends Leonard Bernstein’s pastiche opera, Candide. It may not be great music; but in a fine pro-duction such as this one in Hayward, it’s good fun and a rollicking journey. In fact, it’s quite a trip.