Music review: ‘Candide’ at the Hollywood Bowl

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‘Candide’ -- failed book by Lillian Hellman, delicious lyrics by Richard Wilbur, inspired score by Leonard Bernstein -- opens on Dec. 1, 1956, in New York and closes two months later after 73 performances. Broadway applies the f-word. A flop? We know better.

Sept. 2, 2010, ‘Candide,’ given in a concert performance (based on the one Bernstein prepared in London in 1989), opens at the Hollywood Bowl as part of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s summer season. It closes after a single night. That is all that was scheduled. It is a hit.


The tale that Voltaire’s classic satire tells is long and winding. And the tale of the Broadway show or (as Bernstein called it) American operetta to its present state as quintessential American opera (or music theater piece) is also long and winding. Over the years the piece got new books, new numbers, additional lyrics and new orchestrations until Bernstein finally conducted the full score in London with narration and a cast of opera stars.

Since then Bernstein’s ‘Candide’ has belonged more to the opera house and concert stage than to Broadway. Many things to many people, ‘Candide’ tempts interpreters. A wonderful musical performance by the New York Philharmonic in 2004, which was televised, was subverted by harebrained semi-staging. Two years later, a scandalous, politically way-incorrect opera production in Paris satirized a drunken chorus line of state leaders in skivvies (Bush, Blair, Berlusconi, Putin and Chirac, to be exact).

For the straightforward Bowl presentation on Thursday, the nonsense was mainly that found in ‘Candide,’ with just a touch of cute horseplay. Bramwell Tovey conducted an expertly paced performance. Nearly all the music was included. Richard Suart, a Gilbert and Sullivan man from England, was the sharp-witted narrator and Pangloss, advocate of cockeyed optimism. Otherwise the cast was North American and schooled in opera. Frederica von Stade brought star power and something of a Russian accent to the Old Lady.

Victimized by the era of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, Bernstein (who was blacklisted for two years) and Hellman (who was called up before the House Un-American Activities Committee) began work on the show in 1954, using Voltaire’s 1759 French satire on optimism to parody the communist witch hunts in America two centuries later. But for Bernstein, the story of Candide, who travels the globe getting in hopeless situations, was also his first truly eclectic work.

He threw in every kind of dance imaginable -- waltz (Venetian, Viennese and Parisian), polka, mazurka. There is a barcarolle and a schottische. The score also relies on coloratura frippery and heavy chorales. The Old Lady’s tango has Spanish and French lyrics meant to be sung with the ‘High Middle Polish’ accent of ‘Rovno Gubernya.’ She also makes merry of her record number of humiliations (whipped, stripped, starved, burned, cut in four) to the accompaniment of a punishing 12-tone row.

Pangloss and his pupils -- the dim-witted and ever sanguine Candide, Cunegonde (who loses her virginity repeatedly) and her vain brother Maximilian -- find themselves on many continents and in many absurdly dire situations, from which they always come out worse for the wear. The craziest is a riotous Spanish Inquisition (‘What a day for an auto-da-fé’), the HUAC in thin disguise.


‘Candide’ comes to an arresting end. After deflating the notion that all is the best in the best of all possible worlds from every angle, Bernstein, at his most gloriously affirmative, transforms earlier melodic motives into ‘Make Our Garden Grow.’ The words are banal, the music a statement of our essential humanity.
Alek Shrader, a young Canadian tenor with a lyric voice and clear diction, was a rare Candide, an innocent to be admired rather than a bumpkin to be ridiculed. Anna Christy, an experienced, sophisticated and flirtatious Cunegonde, made ‘Glitter and Be Gay’ sparkle without campiness. A stylish Von Stade has to work hard to ham, and she worked just the right amount on the Old Lady.

Suart’s narration engaged. His baritone is worn but works. And his Gilbert and Sullivan expertise, along with dry humor, served him very well. Maximilian (Paul LaRosa), Paquette (Kathryn Leemhuis) and the Governor (Beau Gibson), were characters created to amuse and they did. The Los Angeles Master Chorale made Eldorado heavenly.

Given Gustavo Dudamel’s advocacy, Bernstein’s music has taken on new luster in Los Angeles. But the L.A. Philharmonic has a history. Some of the best performances of Bernstein I’ve ever heard (conducted by the composer himself, Michael Tilson Thomas and Dudamel) have been by this orchestra in this amphitheater. Tovey, on Thursday night, joined that select company.

-- Mark Swed


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