By Roger Pines, Dramaturg, Lyric Opera of Chicago
In all of American musical theater, no work has traveled a tougher, more ill-starred road than Candide. That the show has survived at all is due to Leonard Bernstein's score, generally acknowledged as his finest in any genre. As director Tyrone Guthrie wrote, "If ever I have seen it, the stuff of genius is here."
Lillian Hellman, the eminent playwright, wanted to bring Voltaire's Candide to the stage. Bernstein, a friend and colleague (he wrote incidental music for her 1955 play, The Lark), persuaded her that operetta would serve the story best. Hellman prepared the book and Guthrie, a major figure in British and North American theater, came aboard as director. There were difficulties regarding the lyrics: Bernstein made a contribution himself, but the final program credited Richard Wilbur (he wrote the lion's share), John Latouche (he was working on revisions at the time of his death), and Dorothy Parker.
Perplexity over Candide's original 1956 production began with its audiences, many of whom questioned whether it belonged on Broadway at all. It seemed instead a candidate for the opera house, and had it been written in another language, that would surely have been its take-off point from the start. Those responsible for Candide – as well as such "Broadway operas" as Porgy and Bess, Street Scene, Regina, and The Consul – wanted their productions to run for a while! The few American opera companies during this period didn't often produce American repertoire, and the number of performances could never compare with even a moderately successful Broadway run.
Candide, subtitled "A Comic Operetta," was created onstage largely by performers with classical background. For example, the elegant tenor Robert Rounseville (Candide) had been Stravinsky's first Tom Rakewell in The Rake's Progress. William Olvis (Governor), another excellent tenor, made it to the Metropolitan Opera two years after Candide, while Irra Petina (Old Lady), formerly a Met mezzo-soprano, established herself as a brilliant Broadway supporting player. Of the two non-operatic performers among the principals, one needed little in the way of a singing voice for his role: the venerable British actor Max Adrian (Pangloss). Barbara Cook, on the other hand, owned a silvery soprano, but her previous Broadway roles had been child's play, vocally speaking, compared to Bernstein's Cunegonde. Now, for the first time in public, Cook was singing high E-flats – and spectacularly!
Cook recalled, years after appearing Candide, "It opened during the awful days of Senator McCarthy's power. It took courage for Lillian and the creative team to present the Lisbon scene in our production. It was about book-burning and naming names. Anyone could see it was about the terrible witch hunt going on in our country. And very few people were speaking out about it. So I'm proud of that."
The original Broadway production lasted only 73 performances. Many critics faulted Hellman's allegedly heavy-handed book, although some felt the artists' vocal excellence was negated by weak acting. There were reworked Candides of distinctly variable quality before the 1972 Brooklyn production, which transferred to Broadway. It had substantial cuts, a reorchestrated score, a freewheeling new book by Hugh Wheeler, and numerous new lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. This version was a long-running Tony-winner, but Candide found its true home only in 1982, when it arrived at the New York City Opera with much of Bernstein's music restored, along with the original orchestrations. Perhaps the version most in favor today is that of Scottish Opera (1988), for which its adapter and conductor, Bernstein associate John Mauceri, consulted the composer extensively.
Virtually every version of Candide has presented the following basic plot outline: The hero and his beloved Cunegonde are about to be married when their country, Westphalia, goes to war. Cunegonde is presumably killed, but Candide, while devastated, still ascribes to his tutor Pangloss's view that "all's for the best in this best of all possible worlds." His travels take him to Lisbon, Paris (where he is reunited with Cunegonde – now a kept woman – and meets the worldly-wise Old Lady), Cadiz, the New World, and more. After years of constant disillusion and disappointment in his fellow human beings, Candide finally asks Cunegonde to marry him and join him in doing their best to lead a thoughtful, productive life.
The technically matchless, fabulously varied score begins with an overture that has become a favorite in orchestral concerts internationally. Best known of the individual vocal numbers is Cunegonde's extravagantly florid and frivolous "Glitter and Be Gay." There are two exquisite duets for the lovers; "Bon Voyage," a virtuosic collaboration between the Governor and the chorus; the Old Lady's tango, "I Am Easily Assimilated," probably the wittiest mezzo-soprano number in Broadway history (the lyrics are Bernstein's own); and the final ensemble, expressing the collective hope that "we'll build our house, and chop our wood, and make our garden grow."
Please read the biography of Leonard Bernstein.
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