Monday, May 7, 2018

CANDIDE, ou l'Optimisme à l'Américain

The Washington National Opera on Saturday presented the last piece of its 2017-2018 season: Leonard Bernstein's Candide, an unmistakably American music work based on a French satirical novella. This year marks Leonard Bernstein's centennial and all major U.S. theaters are performing his works. Not only that - a major filmmaker has announced plans to make a biopic about the composer's life, aptly titled The American.
Pangloss teaches Candide, Maximilian, Cunigonde and Paquette that the world is perfect
So why would this 20th-century American composer choose an 18th-century picaresque novella, with no less than 30 chapters, each set in a different part of the world, and a plot often described as erratic, as the basis for his operetta? Voltaire's satire is ridiculing von Leibniz's philosophy of optimism in the face of major world disasters: wars, earthquakes, social injustices, exploitation, poverty and others. In the 1950s, Bernstein could have found plenty of justification to ridicule the glories of American optimism. It was the era of nuclear arms race, Cold War, McCarthyism, organized crime and rampant racism. But it is not clear that he referred to any of that.

After testing several versions, Bernstein settled for a libretto firmly grounded on Voltaire's work, which he set to his own distinctly American brand of music. His Candide too is neither French nor German, but the epitome of a young optimistic American, who believes that the world is his to conquer and that, as his teachers say, "the sky is the limit." Cunegonde is equally naive in her expectation to land a husband who can provide a life of bliss and luxury. Like Voltaire's, Bernstein's Candide is kicked out of his master's house in Vestphalia for daring to aspire to his noble daughter Cunegonde.  Thus begins Candide's roaming around the world, a voyage beset with misfortunes, betrayal and disappointments. His optimism, as taught by his tutor Pangloss, persists as he receives or delivers blows one after another. Cunegonde is a survivor too. After losing her home in a war and surviving serial rape by the conquering soldiers, she uses her youth and good looks to secure a comfortable lifestyle.

Emily Pogorelc and Alek Shrader as WNO's Cunegonde and Candide
The action moves briskly through a series of musical episodes connected by short narratives. Major characters die and come back to life, including Pangloss, Cunegonde and her brother Maximilian. New people appear and disappear every step of the way. So much so that some performers can easily take on two roles. Actor Wynn Harmon doubles as Pangloss and Voltaire, the narrator, not impressive as either. Bass-baritone Matthew Scollin excells as both James the Anabaptist and Martin the pessimist.

For those who have not read Voltaire or heard the musical before, Bernstein's Candide is not always easy to follow. The WNO provides surtitles for the song lyrics, but not for the narrative where they could be more useful to help orient the clueless. Somewhere halfway through the performance, you are only vaguely aware of what's going on, or are completely lost. It is the power of the score, starting from the energetic overture, which made Bernstein bounce every time he conducted it, through the catchy tunes of songs such as "The Best of All Possible Worlds", that holds a spectator's attention through to the concluding chorus of "Make Our Garden Grow." 

Conductor Nicole Paiement, dressed surprisingly in a biker jacket, skinny jeans and ankle boots, led the WNO orchestra with sustained energy. Alek Shrader's Candide was gentle, benevolent, convincingly naive and beautifully sung. Emily Pogorelc sparkled as Cunegonde. Their marriage duet "O, Happy We" stands out as a conspicuous departure from Voltaire and a perfect example of American optimism: Candide wants to live on a farm and raise kids, Cunegonde wants lavish and jet-settish lifestyle, but both still expect to have a perfectly happy marriage. Washington's darling Denyce Graves was a good choice for the role of the long-suffering but feisty Old Lady, Cunegonde's protector.  She has lost one buttock to cannibals so sitting and riding is painful, but she does not let a minor obstacle like that stand in the way when the time comes to escape.

Sometimes directors opt to set Candide in modern times or in some imaginary fantastical world. A long-ago production at Washington's Arena Stage used puppets and doll houses, model ships and other playthings popping out onto the the stage like jack-in-the-box. Artistic director Francesca Zambello chose a stylized period setting with costumes that sometimes amounted to nothing but underwear, or dresses missing large chunks of fabric in strategic places. But the El Dorado scene was unmistakably Broadway-ish with its glitter and plumes. The performance was fast moving and effervescent as one would expect from a good American musical. 

But even in the best of productions, and Zambello's comes close enough to it, Candide sooner or later becomes tiresome. Awards and glowing reviews notwithstanding, the frenetic exchange of scenes is hard to absorb and the work lacks the passion to hold the audience in thrall as Bernstein's West Side Story does. 

Whether it is opera, operetta, musical or zarzuela, a music theater piece requires a clear and concise storyline, with characters affecting or completely changing one another's lives. Candide and Cunegonde are affected by life's misfortunes, but not by each other. They retire to a little farm after being disillusioned by life's vagaries. The conclusion comes too abruptly to give them time to transition from silly to wise. Is this how Bernstein saw average Americans? Or was the restless and overactive genius offering practical advice to ordinary people with overly rosy expectations for their future? Voltaire's satire may have been the wrong medium to convey this message to a broad-spectrum audience.
Candide and his companion Cacambo in El Dorado, which looks like a Broadway musical
Works such as Stravinsky's Rake's Progress, Glass's Appomatox and, yes, Bernstein's Candide, that lack passionate characters, will never have the lasting popular appeal of tragic Romeo-and-Juliette-type stories, or music comedies such as Oklahoma and My Fair Lady, or dramatic works like Porgy and Bess - despite the quality of music they offer.  

It is surprising, therefore, that the WNO would offer just a few performances of West Side Story in Concert, which were sold out despite poor publicity  (I learned quite by chance and after the fact that they had been given) as opposed to a lavish staging of Candide, which had difficulty filling the opera house on its first night Saturday, despite the availability of heavily discounted seats. 

"Any questions?"  Yes, many.

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