LENOX -- Late in life, Leonard Bernstein voiced regret that he had not composed the "Great American Opera."
But then there's his final version of "Candide," the phantasmagorical operetta that was given a scintillating concert performance by the Boston Symphony, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, first-class professional singers and TMC vocalists in the Koussevitzky Music Shed on Saturday night.
Despite the plot machinations adapted from Voltaire's mid-18th century novella, the stature of the work emerged clearly from the compelling, 140-minute, nearly-complete performance conducted by Bramwell Tovey.
With limited semi-staging, the vocal soloists and choristers became immersed in the comedic action, an imaginative touch favored by Tovey and enhanced by John Oliver's redoubtable TFC singers who, as usual, had memorized their parts and were free for theatrical showmanship.
A successful "Candide" requires the most savvy casting. Tovey and the BSO assembled a dream team, with nearly all the major roles taken by singers who had performed it with the conductor and the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl in 2010.
In the multiple roles of Voltaire (as narrator), Dr. Pangloss (Candide's ever-optimistic mentor) and two minor characters, British actor Richard Suart, steeped in the Gilbert and Sullivan tradition, played it for hearty guffaws.
Adept in the vintage British patter-song repertoire, he handled the role's minimal vocal demands with ease. He also stitched together the preposterous plot strands designed to send up the overweening Age of Enlightenment optimism that Voltaire despised.
For vocal excellence, highly-esteemed opera-house favorite Nicholas Phan (the only newcomer to Tovey's cast) was an ideal Candide while soprano Anna Christy captured the essence of Cunegonde, the young lad's love interest.
Phan's delicate, lyric tenor and sensitive phrasing created a sense of romantic ardor in his meditative soliloquies ("It Must Be So" and its reprise, "It Must Be Me") and in Candide's Lament. His wistful act two "Ballad of Eldorado," with the TFC, summed up Candide's quest for a peaceful oasis where he could live a simple farmer's life with Cunegonde -- an outcome of marital bliss foreshadowed in their frothy act one duet, "Oh Happy We."
The test for any Cunegonde is the coloratura aria "Glitter and Be Gay" with its florid flights into the vocal stratosphere. Tackling these challenges with ease and aplomb, Christy brought the house down. Beyond vocal pyrotechnics, she offered a delicate, nuanced, charming and flirtatious portrayal of the besieged heroine who is killed off and miraculously resurrected ("love will find a way").
The beloved soprano Frederica von Stade was in her element, portraying the Old Lady, Cunegonde's companion transformed into a tango-dancing Spaniard from her Eastern European origins in Rovno Gubernya (a real place where Bernstein's father, Samuel, was born). Nearly 45 years after her Metropolitan Opera debut, she retains a voice well-preserved during a remarkable career.
In subsidiary, multiple roles, Kathryn Leemhuis, Paul LaRosa, Beau Gibson and Matthew Worth were exemplary -- also noteworthy were brief contributions by TMC Vocal Fellows Stephen Carroll, Vincent Festa and Cairan Ryan.
Apart from their comedic turns, the TFC singers poured their hearts into Bernstein's felicitous choral interludes. During "Make Our Garden Grow," the anthem-like finale for the entire cast, their a cappella cry to the heavens made a stunning impact.
Just before the final orchestral chords, Stuart, as Voltaire, asked: "Any questions?" In assent, the audience roared its approval, a richly-earned standing ovation honoring a memorable performance of Bernstein's hard-won opera-house achievement.
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