Celebrating Lenny’s 100th this year has made Candide ubiquitous at opera houses worldwide. But the city most identified with its composer’s musical life had to make due with an overstuffed semi-staged gala at Carnegie Hall Wednesday night that sometimes threatened to sink Bernstein’s “problem child” but sterling performances by Paul Appleby and Erin Morley in particular saved the evening from the fate of the Santa Rosalia. 

The audience at Carnegie was initially greeted by a projection of a serene Bernstein as well as an equally enormous one of Voltaire upon whose 1759 picaresque novella the musical? opera? operetta? we were about to experience was based. Its bitter satiric tone and rambling narrative made it a curious source for a Broadway project in 1956.

Despite its glowing pedigree—Lillian Hellman! Richard Wilbur! Tyrone Guthrie!—Candide was greeted less than enthusiastically and ran just 73 performances. But its magnificent original-cast recording featuring Barbara Cook, Irra Petina, Robert Rounseville and Max Adrian engendered a cult following that for years longed for the show’s redemption.

As I so loved musicals my grandmother took me to several every year by the Kenley Players, the local summer stock company, but soon we stopped going as I had decided I preferred opera instead—I was then 11. But as I began immersing myself in that art form, some musical theatre still attracted me, primarily the works of Stephen Sondheim but also Candide which I learned from the OC-LP I borrowed from the library.

Its brilliantly fizzy and eclectic score enthralled me and I devoured both Voltaire’s original and Hellman’s book and grew excited when I read about the Hal PrinceHugh Wheeler revision due to bring new life to this neglected gem.

I’ll never forget my excitement when my parcel arrived from King Karol containing the two-LP set pf that “new and improved” Candide. Unfortunately I hated it with a passion and listened to it once—perhaps twice—only occasionally returning to it for the ear-opening “Auto-da-fé,” an exciting sequence omitted from the original recording.

I’ve attended a half-dozen performances of Candide since then and while I remain besotted by the score (in all its incarnations) I continue to dislike Wheeler’s jokey shallow gloss on Voltaire which always seems a poor partner to the ebullient elegance and heartfelt if unearned pathos of Bernstein’s music.

Maybe Candide was doomed from the beginning as Voltaire’s work features shallow and unlikable characters in a random and chaotic narrative—hardly the usual stuff of musical theater. Wednesday’s production again struggled to make that all work with mixed success.

Delivering the rambling narration of Voltaire/Dr. Pangloss is a somewhat thankless Herculean labor but John Lithgow (a mere five years younger than Placido Domingo) succeeded better than many, delivering his patter with a spry charm and singing his few songs with a game if wispy élan.

To “aid” him, a rapid-fire flow of images was continuously and distractingly projected onto the back of Carnegie’s stage conjuring every locale from Westphalia to Lisbon to Paris to Buenos Aires, etc. In addition a relentlessly bright and cheerful eight-member vocal/dance ensemble were often on hand to gyrate and “assist.”

Neither they nor the principals had much room to maneuver as the stage was filled to overflowing with the largest contingent of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s I’ve ever seen (eight cellos, really?) and the full-throated eighty-member Mansfield University Concert Choir, all under the direction of Rob Fisher.

As they say, be careful what you wish for: after having experienced several small-scaled performances I always thought I needed a big “operatic” Candide but both the 2004 New York Philharmonic version and Carnegie’s have felt too overblown and unwieldy for such a subtly luminous score.

The big concert-hall approach put the musical-theatre members of the cast at a disadvantage—Bryonha Marie Parham as Paquette and Ryan Silverman in a quartet of roles including Maximilian and the Grand Inquisitor just couldn’t compete vocally with their operatic colleagues.

The big shining tenor of William Burden combined with a deliciously louche manner made the Governor’s “My Love” one of the evening’s highpoints. Another was a vampish Patricia Racette’s sizzling take on “I am Easily Assimilated,” the show’s best staged production number. Elsewhere her Rovno-Gubernyan accent as the Old Lady verged on the impenetrable while the demanding high-lying phrases of the “Quartet Finale” turned squally.

I’ve sweated as Broadway ingénues failed miserably to conquer “Glitter and be Gay” and cringed as opera divas squeaked and camped their way through it; I learned the hard way that I couldn’t simultaneously cover my eyes and plug my ears when Diana Damrau trotted out an especially terrible Cunegonde turn at a Richard Tucker Foundation gala a while back.

Over the years I’ve kept hoping against hope for a soprano who would seduce me with Bernstein’s delicious “Jewel Song” parody in the same way as the glorious Cook original (incisively dissected by the campy and excitable Seth Rudetsky).

At last Carnegie answered my prayers: Morley’s utterly delicious Cunegonde was a joy all evening but her own uniquely dizzy, dazzling yet wickedly sly “Glitter” finally delivered me to a new Eldorado after all my years of wishing. She relished Wilbur’s divine words while adding some sparkling ornaments to the already challenging coloratura. That she brought down the packed house was a given.

She and Appleby partnered for the evening’s most unexpectedly satisfying moment: the usually hilarious reunion duet “You Were Dead, You Know.” Their initial sighting of each other—normally excited and horny–was instead filled with shy hesitation. It blossomed into a bemused exchange of their recent histories with each bravely determined to hide their more embarrassing lapses. Their exchange culminated in a ravishingly beautiful melismatic sequence in which their intertwined voices floated magically into the air with a sigh. Heaven!

Appleby’s fine Candide bore the heaviest vocal burden of the evening. I don’t remember any previous version where its hero had so many solo pieces; his final, harsh “Nothing More Than This” was new to me. Although Appleby easily embodied Candide’s earnestness and increasingly troubled optimism, his open-faced, wide-eyed approach occasionally struck me as over-artful scanting the character’s naiveté and innocence. However, many moments were just wonderful particularly his floated “Ballad of Eldorado.”

The choices involved in assembling the evening’s edition had me sometimes scratching my head. Why the new words to the “Quartet Finale”? Why was “My Love” a duet instead of a trio? Where was “Quiet”? No “Sheep Song”? No story of the Old Lady’s missing buttock?

But the story of the many versions of Candide must be nearly as knotty as that of Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann. In any case, I was grateful to hear “We are Women” performed with rollicking glee by Morley and Racette and Lithgow’s acerbic paean to venereal disease “Dear Boy!”

Brief guest-star cameos by Danny Burstein, Len Cariou and especially Marilyn Horne, resplendent as the Queen of Eldorado, added excitement to the gala evening which begin rather badly with a shockingly lumpy and leaden account of the work’s famous overture.

Elsewhere Fisher’s conducting flowed nicely but without much effervescence, but I suspect he often chose overly deliberate tempi attempting to aid his singers in putting across the delightfully intricate lyrics mostly by Wilbur, who died just six months ago at age 96. I generally hate amplification but such an occasion required miking, particularly for Lithgow’s lengthy spoken interjections. All in all it was passably done although when Morley and Appleby sang I really wanted to hear their unaided voices.

Candide was one of this season’s events that I was most looking forward to so I was surprised to feel somewhat let down as I left Carnegie Hall. It might be akin to each time I see Follies: the score remains a miracle but the show that contains it just doesn’t really work for me.

I again was bothered how the optimistic ending with its glorious anthem “Make Your Garden Grow” springs from out of nowhere. But as with the Sondheim gem, Bernstein’s music should be heard so people keep trying—Washington National Opera presents its Candide directed by Francesca Zambello next month, while the Santa Fe Opera entrusts its new production to Laurent Pelly after which Barrie Kosky has a try at his Komische Oper in November with Anne-Sofie von Otter as the Old Lady!

Photos: Chris Lee