'Candide' at Tanglewood: Operetta finds best possible world
LENOX -- When Leonard Bernstein acknowledged to a 1989 London concert audience that "Candide," his Broadway musical-turned-operetta, had endured a "checkered history," it was a rare example of understatement on his part.
Based on the 1759 Voltaire novella that satirizes the Age of Enlightenment’s all-encompassing optimism, the show flopped badly on Broadway in 1956, despite Bernstein’s delectable, highly praised score.
Noted playwright Lillian Hellman, a victim of the McCarthy era blacklist as was Bernstein himself (briefly), originally proposed a theater piece with incidental music. But the already famous composer-conductor pushed for a musical, including a scene set during the Spanish Inquisition that mirrored the career-destroying House Un-American Activities Committee.
Hellman’s original libretto was augmented by a formidable team -- James Agee, Stephen Sondheim, Dorothy Parker, Richard Wilbur, John Latouche, Bernstein and his wife, actress Felicia Montealegre. All to no avail.
But the original cast album showcasing "The Best of All Possible Worlds," "Glitter and Be Gay," "Oh, Happy We," "It Must Be So," "I Am Easily Assimilated" and "Make Our Garden Grow" became very popular. Bernstein had composed a melange of waltzes, polkas, mazurkas, a tango and a barcarolle, as well as high-ranging vocal hi-jinx for the soprano and surprisingly serious interludes for a chorus.
Hellman’s script was thrown out and Hugh Wheeler prepared a new libretto in 1973. Although cut nearly in half, and without Bernstein’s imprimatur, the so-called Chelsea version put "Candide" on the road to rescue. A 1982 "opera house version" found favor at New York City Opera and elsewhere around the world.
In 1988 conductor John Mauceri, now joined by Bernstein and writer John Wells, produced a "Scottish Opera" edition, but the composer continued making alterations that resulted in a "final revised version." He conducted it for an enthusiastic audience at London’s Barbican Centre in December 1989, followed by a DVD and CD release.
Since then, a wide variety of versions and productions have been performed.
But none of these twists and turns faze conductor Bramwell Tovey, who leads professional and TMC vocalists, the Boston Symphony and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus in a concert performance this Saturday night, closely mirroring the version he presented two years ago with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl.
With one exception (tenor Nicholas Phan takes the title role), the lineup of principal singers is identical, including much-admired mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade, now 69, in the role of the easily-assimilated Old Lady.
Tovey, longtime music director of the Vancouver (B.C.) Symphony and a frequent guest of the New York and L.A. Philharmonic, plans to present Bernstein’s final complete version. The British-born conductor led a well-received concert performance of Gershwin’s "Porgy and Bess" at Tanglewood three summers ago.
On the phone from his Vancouver home, Tovey extolled "Candide" as "a fantastic score -- just because it’s light, funny and brilliant doesn’t mean it isn’t a
For him, the performance here represents a "closing of the circle," since Bernstein brought him to the Tanglewood Music Center as a visiting artist to study with him in 1986, soon after Tovey had impressed as a last-minute substitute at the opening night of a Bernstein music festival by the London Symphony.
As Tovey puts it, "Bernstein had a major effect on my career and my life ... it was an incredible experience, he was so encouraging, kind and inspiring, an absolute gentleman."
At the 1989 London performance, "Bernstein solved the problems, so it works brilliantly well as a concert opera," said Tovey. "The problem comes when you do it as a staged production. The story is so ridiculous, it’s so much harder to do. ... Like any light opera, it’s very difficult to sing, to get the right style and give it the right amount of fluff."
Timing is everything
In Tovey’s view, "the greatest challenge for a concert performance is timing Š to capture the essence of comedic timing in music is very serious business. The orchestra has to be razor-sharp, like the BSO is, to make those little gestures by the singers reflect what’s in the score."
Based on his "Porgy" experience, the conductor is extremely keen on the Tanglewood Festival Chorus -- "I absolutely adore them, they become part of the action" thanks to their memorization of all the music they sing.
With three full rehearsals ahead of the performance -- one more than the Tanglewood norm -- Tovey anticipates smooth sailing. "The BSO is so extraordinary, the players are wonderful and so dedicated, they arrive ready to go," he said.
After Bernstein died in 1990, according to Tovey, "some people thought his star would wane, but instead it has only grown."
The same can be said for the fortunes of "Candide," since its final, revised edition truly represents the best of all possible worlds.
To contact Clarence Fanto:
or (413) 637-2551.
On Twitter: @BE_cfanto
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