We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Thursday, April 19, 2018


The cast of Leonard Bernstein's Candide onstage at Carnegie Hall

In celebration of the Bernstein Centennial, Carnegie Hall presented a one-night benefit performance of Candide, with Rob Fisher conducting the huge orchestral forces of the Orchestra of St. Luke's, and the enormous Mansfield University Concert Choir, all onstage.

Let us avoid any discussion of whether this charming work 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.

The concert version we saw last night at Carnegie Hall was new to us, since our prior experiences have been with the Harold Prince version. This one was Bernstein's final intention, realized and recorded shortly before his death in 1989. What a thrill to hear songs we hadn't heard before and to see scenes we hadn't previously seen. We are reminded that opera composers of the 19th c. also revised their operas many times such that a definitive performing version can be negotiable.

Not only do we love the music but we adore the book by Hugh Wheeler, 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.

The literary work upon which it is based is Voltaire's 1759 novella, a satiric attack on war, religious persecution, and the positivist philosophy of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz who claimed that whatever happens in this world is divinely ordered and for the best.

What we didn't know was that one of the episodes is based upon true events. In Lisbon, the horrendous death toll of an earthquake resulted in religious persecutions meant to "appease God". Well!  If that doesn't sound like some contemporary stuff going on in the Middle East we will eat the score for breakfast!

If anyone doesn't know the story, it involves the picaresque adventures of an innocent youth named Candide and his beloved Cousin Cunegonde who were tutored by one Dr. Pangloss, a stand-in for Leibniz. The two survive the horrors of war, shipwrecks, deceits and betrayals, as well as the aforementioned auto-da-fe;  they get continually separated and reunited more than once until at the end they decide to have a quiet life with modest pleasures.

One couldn't ask for a better Candide than tenor Paul Appleby, about whom we have written since his student days at Juilliard. No opera or concert appearance or award gala performance has failed to impress us artistically or to touch us emotionally. With the ensuing years he has grow as an artist but has not lost the sweet freshness of his tenor. Once again, last night, he touched our heart as his innocence kept him afloat from one disaster to the next.

He was particularly memorable in his ballads "Life is Happiness Indeed" and in his lament in Scene 2. His duet with Cunegonde "You Were Dead, You Know" was a knockout.

As Cunegonde, the brilliant soprano Erin Morley, another favorite of ours, turned in a landmark performance. Repeated hearings has never dulled the sharp character delineation created in "Glitter and Be Gay" which shows Cunegonde's ambivalence about her stint in a brothel, being patronized on alternate days by an Archbishop (Len Cariou) and Don Issachar the Jew (Danny Burstein)--a scene that drove the audience wild. 

The poor girl laments the loss of her honor but revels in the pleasures of the jewels showered upon her. We think of Marguerite's "Jewel Song" in Gounod's Faust. Another highlight of the evening was her duet with Patricia Racette-- "We Are Women", a number we had not heard before.

It was difficult to imagine Patricia Racette in the role of The Old Woman because she is far too young and attractive. Nonetheless, she employed a "high Middle Polish" accent and appropriate gestures that made her performance convincing. Her version of "I Am Easily Assimilated" always tickles us.

Making a brief appearance in a wheelchair was legendary mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne in a speaking role as the Queen of Eldorado. We loved her line--"We have no lawyers or courts here; no one is angry."

In a bit of luxury casting we heard William Burden's fine tenor as the lustful Governor of Buenos Aires. Glenn Seven Allen, Kyle Pfortmiller, and Ross Benoliel made a fine trio in "Auto-da-fe".

Other roles were assumed by Broadway stars. John Lithgow made a convincing Dr. Pangloss and also narrated as Voltaire himself. His singing is about as good as Rex Harrison's was in My Fair Lady. Ryan Silverman portrayed Cunegonde's vain brother Maximilian and appeared later as the Grand Inquisitor and a Jesuit.

Paquette was performed by Bryonha Marie Parham who sang in several ensembles. Her character did not have the same stage time as in the Hal Prince version.  The Baron and Baroness were also cut, as were the singing sheep in the Eldorado scene.

If we were to name all the numbers that delighted us we would surely run out of space but we absolutely must mention the delightful "What's the Use" which takes place in the casino in Venice. We can't stop humming it!

Although it was a concert version, taking place on a shallow area in front of the orchestra, there was enough action to hold our attention.  Director Gary Griffin did a fine job on this account.  Costumes by Tracy Christensen were quite wonderful. 

In place of sets we had projections designed by Wendall K. Harrington and they were superb. All of the locales in the show were represented above the heads of the choristers and some of them had moving figures. For example, when the characters were at sea, we saw maps of the Atlantic Ocean with images of a several-masted schooner tacking back and forth! Each scene was suitably accompanied by these visuals and the audience loved them.

If there were one flaw in the evening, and of course there would have to be "in this best of all possible worlds", it would be the sound design. The lyrics to the songs are so clever that it was a shame to miss so much of them. Of all the singers, Mr. Appleby's words came across the best. We are not sure what kind of amplification was used but it was far from satisfactory. Since there were several songs that were new to us, we will have to look for the lyrics online.

(c) meche kroop

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