At Tanglewood, the best of all possible 'Candides'

Margaret Gawrysiak, center, as the Old Lady; Myles Mykkanen, kneeling right, as CandIde; Sharleen Joynt as Cunegonde, behind Candide; Alex Mansoori, kneeling left, as The Governor and members of the ensemble in The Knights' presentation of Leonard Bernstein's "Candide," performed Wednesday and Thursday at Tanglewood's Ozawa Hall.

LENOX — The Boston Symphony's big spectacular centenary birthday party for Leonard Bernstein came Saturday night on the last weekend of the Tanglewood season. But, two and three days before, there was a rapturous pre-party at Tanglewood's Seiji Ozawa Hall — a brilliantly conceived, fully staged presentation of Bernstein's troubled but much beloved "Candide," featuring the music collective, The Knights, and an inspired company of singer-actor-dancers.

Under the stage direction of Alison Moritz, music direction and conducting of The Knights' co-artistic director, Eric Jacobsen, and John Heginbotham's choreography, Bernstein's problem-child seemed more like a wunderkind.

In his program notes, James M. Keller — Leonard Bernstein scholar-in-residence at the New York Philharmonic and program annotator for San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic — describes "Candide" as "the work that gave Bernstein more headaches than any other."

Originally a collaboration among Bernstein (music), playwright Lillian Hellman (book), and poet Richard Wilbur (lyrics), this musical adaptation of Voltaire's 1759 satirical novella opened on Broadway Dec. 1, 1956 after a tryout in Boston. It closed after only 73 performances. In the years since, "Candide" has seen a variety of permutations in a variety of productions. Bernstein himself made some changes, reordering the sequence of songs, dropping some altogether. Stephen Sondheim, Dorothy Parker, John Mauceri, John Wells and playwright Hugh Wheeler have all contributed to the libretto over the years.

The version played Wednesday and Thursday by The Knights was created for Scottish Opera in 1988, adapted by John Wells and John Mauceri from Wheeler's libretto; directed by Wells and Jonathan Miller. It opened in Glasgow on May 17, 1988 for a limited run and then reopened at The Old Vic in London in December 1988, running through early January 1989.

Trim, lean, crystalline, this version "uses about 40 percent of all the 'Candide' music that had accumulated in the course of its many revisions, Keller writes.

"Candide" is a picaresque tale of two lovers, Candide and Cunegonde, who are taught by their tutor, Dr. Pangloss, that all is for the best in this very best of all possible worlds, God's universal plan. But the path to true love leads Candide and Cunegonde, together and separately, through a landscape filled with peril — war, carnage, betrayal, hangings, the Inquisition, rape, slavery, earthquake, hypocrisy, natural and human devastation.

"If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others like?" a bewildered Candide asks rhetorically as he surveys the dead bodies strewn across a battlefield.

In the end, as a reunited Candide and Cunegonde and his lost friends settle on a farm Candide has purchased near Venice, Candide comes to the realization that the best any of us can do is accept life on its terms and make our gardens grow.

"We're neither wise nor pure nor good, We'll do the best we know," he sings in the powerful, haunting finale, "Make Our Garden Grow."

In an evening of unending joys and marvel, the particular joy of this production was its exuberant, impudent sense of play; its smart invention and imagination; the breathtaking skill and talent to pull it off..

Moritz cast "Candide" within the framework of a commedia del'arte clown show; not only commedia — a big-tent carnival side show; a European style, one-ring circus, sans animals, with a massive floor-to-ceiling red curtain draped across the rear of the stage and beads of individual yellow lights threaded overhead. The orchestral complement ranged across the upstage area on three levels with Jacobsen on a modest podium from which he occasionally stepped down to participate in the action on the broad playing space.

Characters popped out of huge steamer trunks and an easel at one side of the stage held signs indicating the location of the action.

Baritone Evan Jones' Voltaire/Pangloss was the ringmaster, complete with top hat and a black cutaway coat. He was an authoritative, often wry, welcoming guide/participant in the madness and folly.

Before Candide (the astonishing Oliver Hardy-looking Myles Mykkanen with a remarkably supple tenor voice that still, days after hearing it, lingers in my mind) and his lady love, Cunegonde (the thoroughly engaging soprano Sharleen Joynt) appeared, their Pierrot-Pirouette alter egos, dancers John Eirich and Courtney Lopes, filled the stage with their graceful, airy dancing. Throughout the evening, they served as commentators, of a sort, on the relationship between Candide and Cunegonde.

The musicianship throughout — instrumental and vocal — was extraordinary. The vocalizing in particular was rich and expressive; at once light as air and as profound as the longing of some its characters, Mykkanen's astonishing ability to hold a note until it began to fade of its own necessity created the evening's most heart-wrenching moments in Candide's two meditations, "It Must Be So" and "It Must Be Me."

Mezzo Maragret Gawrysiak more than took the measure of the Old Lady, an Eastern European woman with only one buttock (don't ask), who becomes part of Candide's world-wide adventures, and Alexander Elliot and Alex Mansoori were spot on in their respective multiple roles.

Keller writes in his program notes "it is impossible to point to any one version as the best of all possible 'Candides.'" I beg to differ.

Jeffrey Borak can be reached at 413-496-6212 or