Keith Phares, Jessica Tyler Wright, Linda Lavin, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Meghan Picerno, Kat Liu, and Leah Horowitz (photo by Sarah Shatz)
It would be well to avoid any discussion of whether Leonard Bernstein's charming Candide is an opera or a musical comedy. No matter how many times we have seen the work, nor in whatever venue, we have always enjoyed it and walked out humming numbers from Bernstein's tuneful score. The work is an enduring one, and an endearing one, and its arias have appeared on countless recitals, especially "Glitter and Be Gay", a favorite of coloratura sopranos. The work seems to be critic-proof and, in spite of it's initial cool reception, continues to appear in various iterations, each worthy on its own terms.
Not only do we love the music but we adore the book, which touches upon so many serious themes, beneath a comic facade.
In this story of innocence betrayed and reality accepted, we are exposed to countless trials and tribulations; we witness the heroes of the story pursuing their ideals and surviving their hardships. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that the public has such affection for the work.
In the current iteration, produced by the New York City Opera (trying to survive their own trials and tribulations), we have a lavishly produced and savvily directed (Harold Prince) production that left the audience smiling and humming. The colorful set design by Clarke Dunham was appropriately cartoonish and the costume design by Judith Dolan was always a propos, contributing to the qualities of the character. The Rose Theater is a comfortable one with great sight lines.
The acting was fine all around with soprano Meghan Picerno complementing her scintillating coloratura by creating a Cunegonde of great practicality with consummate survival instincts. As her bastard cousin and would-be lover Candide, tenor Jay Armstrong Johnson had a great deal of appeal and there was something quite touching about the pair's yearning for one another.
Jessica Tyler Wright made an adorable and sexy Paquette, in contrast with Ms. Picerno's innocent-seeming (!) Cunegonde. Baritone Keith Phares shone as the self-absorbed Maximilian, with Linda Lavin as The Old Lady who gets to sing the hilarious "I Am Easily Assimilated".
Gregg Edelman got to switch wigs (credit to Georgianna Eberhard) to create the characters of the Narrator Voltaire and Dr. Pangloss. In Voltaire's prose work Candide, he skewers Leibniz' philosophy of optimism which is the same philosophy taught by Dr. Pangloss to his four juvenile charges who will soon learn that this is NOT the best of all possible worlds. Voltaire was also quite outspoken against Catholicism which appears in the book for this work (written by Hugh Wheeler based on Voltaire). There is a licentious Grand Inquisitor of course (Brooks Ashmanskas) and the excesses of The Inquisition are shown no mercy.
Other religions fare no better with Chip Zien portraying Don Issachar the Jew, and Mr. Ashmanskas portraying a Turkish Pasha slavemaster. Voltaire's philosophies go down much more easily for the general public than in reading his Enlightenment masterwork. Warmongering gets the same satirical treatment as religion.
In what amounts to luxury casting we spied Sishel Claverie as The Baroness, Peter Kendall Clark in a number of small roles, as well as Glenn Seven Allen.
With Charles Prince conducting, the New York City Opera Orchestra gave Bernstein's marvelous music its due. We are still humming the tunes.
If there were one disappointment it would be in the shortchanging of the lyrics, which are way clever and deserved clearer enunciation. Poor amplification has plagued NYCO even when they had a home at New York State Theater. (Yes, the one that has been "renamed"). Lyrics are credited to Richard Wilbur, Stephen Sondheim, John La Touche, and Leonard Bernstein. We suspect that Mr. Sondheim contributed the lion's share.
For unknown reasons, the cast comprised both opera singers and Broadway stars. Some artists were more amplified than others but, to our ears, this was disconcerting. We could not say that one group had better enunciation than the other, nor that amplification made anyone sound any clearer. But we will say that Chip Zien was always understandable and that Ms. Picerno, even at the upper range of her stratospheric range, was mostly so. If the purpose of amplification was to make the words clearer, we'd call it a failure. And if casting Broadway stars was done for dramatic reasons, we would take issue with that. The opera singers we know are all sensational actors.
We have reviewed Candide so many times--all of them archived and searchable. But the very first time was in 2011, before we began www.vocedimeche.reviews. We were writing for The Opera Insider and reviewed a production by a company called Co-opera. The work was performed by opera singers without much in the way of production values, but we remember it still. We will supply a link for any readers who are curious...http://theoperainsider.blogspot.com/2011_09_01_archive.html
(c) meche kroop