Jointly created, revised, changed, and tortured into various versions by a handful of collaborators, Leonard Bernstein’s Candide is a show that can’t make up its mind as to what it wants to be. Neither an opera nor a musical, nor a true operetta, Bernstein’s fourth Broadway show died several slow deaths in various productions after a slew of mostly bad reviews and sparsely sold performances. Yet, Candide remains to this day the object of a cult following that has either worshipped or scorned several mountings by various opera companies in the United States and England, but has always loved Bernstein’s inventive score.
Candide is as much a vehicle for good singers as any good old Gilbert and Sullivan, Johann Strauss, Offenbach or Lehár opus can be. Also needed: a top-notch pit orchestra that can take on the famous overture and several of the work’s ensembles and aria-like tunes, and a stylish staging that allows the show’s fast-paced, chaotic plot (don’t ask) to make some sort of sense, or at least entertain.
Conductor, Mark Gibson, is at the helm of the CCM production, and, as can be expected from anything he touches, delivers a quicksilver reading of Bernstein’s score, The vocal casting requirements for Candide are well within the reach of CCM’s students, including the demanding roles of Candide and Cunegonde, and in the production now on stage at the Patricia Corbett Theatre until the end of the week, the talented student cast will make your visit worthwhile.
Unfortunately, the CCM production does not rise to the level of the music making. Ranging from the grey unisex uniforms that take the place of costumes, and do no favors to the singers, to a drab unit set that asks us to suspend disbelief (the changing action travels far and wide in time and space), we are asked to fill in the blanks left vacant by director Emma Griffin and her design team. The setting for the action looks vguely like an industrial space with high clerestory windows and a couple of entrances, and its post-modern look has little to do with Voltaire’s spirit, and with Bernstein’s classically-inflected travelogue music, replete as the score is with tangos, minuets, gavottes, operatic bravura turns, and patter songs.
Key moments such as the one in Act II, when the action travels to South America’s fictional El Dorado, fall flat, instead of stunning the spectator. The few moments of true emotion, such as the final reunion of Candide and Cunegonde, just prior to the Make Your Garden Grow finale, fail to elicit an emotional response from an audience grown tired of the jokey, bluntly sarcastic tone of the production.
If only Maestro Lenny had had one single creative talent at his side, creating the perfect libretto, instead of a cadre of contributors with conflicting opinions, there would be no telling what the fate of his Candide could have been. But Harold Prince, Lillian Hellman, John La Touche, Hugh Wheeler, Tyrone Guthrie, John Mauceri, Dorothy Parker, John Wells, Stephen Sondheim and Richard Wilbur, all stuck their oars in at different times, causing the vessel to go off course. Some say that a dromedary is a horse designed by committee, and every time we revisit Candide, we come away feeling just that.
The merry music making at CCM though is more than worth the price of admission. Go listen while you still can through the end of this week.
Rafael de Acha