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Genius Unknown, Genius Unquestioned

New York
New York City Opera
04/08/2008 -  and April 8, 13, 15, May 20
Leonard Bernstein: Candide
Daniel Reichard (Candide), Lielle Berman (Cunegonde), Jessica Wright (Paquette), Judith Blazer (The Old Lady), Kyle Pfortmiller (Maximillian), Richard Kind (Dr. Pangloss/Voltaire/Sage/Businessman etc. etc.), Jessica Wright (Paquette), Sandy Rosenberg (Baroness), Robert Ousley (Baron)

Book by Hugh Wheeler, Lyrics by Richard Wilbur, Leonard Bernstien, John Latouche, Stephen Sondheim; Music by Leonard Bernstein
New York City Opera Chorus, New York City Opera Associate Chorus, New York City Opera Children’s Chorus, Charles F. Prestinari (chorus director), New York City Opera Dancers, New York City Opera Character Mimes and New York City Opera Orchestra, George Manahan (conductor)
Harold Prince (production), Arthur Masella (stage director), Patricia Birch (choreography), Clarke Dunham (costume designer), Ken Billington (lighting designer), Abe Jacob (sound designer)

“What’s the use? What’s the use?” sings the Pasha in an extraordinary picture of a Turkish seraglio cum casino in this, the latest incarnation of the longest-running failure in musical history. Candide started well with Voltaire—the H.L. Menkin/Bertrand Russell of his time. But when a company of geniuses took hold of the novella two centuries later, Candide became the mismatch of the 20th Century.

I was fortunate in having only the recording, never having seen the show. To me, the music and lyrics were magic, though it was hard to figure it out. This was certainly not opera, nor did it have the lightweight tinkle of Gilbert and Sullivan operetta (which Bernstein apparently longed for). It was hardly a musical, not with Richard Wilbur’s complex lyrics. And while the finale had the overpowering schmaltz of West Side Story’s “There’s A Place For Us”, it had nothing to do with the acerbic other songs.

Nothing can be more boring than going into the changes introduced by Sondheim, Bernstein, Hal Prince etc. etc. Leave it only be said that this production, repeated from last year at City Opera (an idea from the late Beverly Sills) is as busy as slapstick comedy, as entertaining as vaudeville, has as many scene changes as a silent movie—but still has that gorgeous music by Leonard Bernstein.

Yes, it starts off Gilbert and Sullivan-ish with “The Best of All Possible Worlds”, but then works into works worthy of an opera. “It Must Be So” is a meditation worthy of Debussy. “Glitter and Be Gay” is a coloratura aria reaching where the high E-flat is the least of the challenges, making a Rossini aria sound like a Gregorian Chant. Barbara Cook originally sang it to shatter the house down. And here Lielle Berman’s Cunegonde gives it not only the musical panache but has a marvelous movement with an unholy calliope player!!

The mock love-song “You Were Dead, You Know” may be funny in context, but it is still a lovely duet.

There is more, far, far more, and it is Bernstein at his best. (Also in “I Am Easily Assimilated”, it is Bernstein the librettist!). As a show, City Opera has the singers, dancers and actors which make the music roll right along. Yes, I still prefer the total manliness of Robert Rounseville in the original to the “Broadway” voice of Daniel Reichard, but if the latter resembles Lil Abner, his tenor voice is up to the task. Lielle Berman’s Cunegonde hits all the high notes, and Jessica Wright, dressed irrationally as a showgirl, does well. Richard Kind plays everything (even conducting the orchestra!), but his natural comic sense is well put to use. Finally, for the larger roles, Judith Blazer is “so easily assimilated” into everything.

I dare not review every Jesuit Grand Inquisitor, Jewish chassid, group of sheep, Pasha etc. etc. They keep coming in and out singing, dancing and making it all go.

The sets are a gallimaufry of Medieval street theatre, burlesque, Edwardian picture postcards, Globe Theatre and the rising and falling scenery of Restoration comedy. Add to this scenes in the audience, on the far sides of the proscenium, and off the balcony. They don’t all work, but the Turkish scene could be adopted to next week’s Met performance of Die Entführung aus dem Serail. Just beautiful. Richard Kind plays a dozen roles, but his bit as the Sage almost falling from a balcony in the penultimate scene is total hysteria, various miniature ships parade across the stage beautifully, and we even have a desert isle.

But enough. With all the revisions and re-revisions, Candide’s species is still terra incognita and the flimflam is not always clear. But Bernstein’s music and the (mostly) Richard Wilbur's lyrics were carving out a new musical form with a combination of pure genius, pure joy and the sometimes misguided adventure of pure inspiration.

Harry Rolnick



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