Candide [Concert performance of Scottish Opera Version]

Narrator/Pangloss/Martin – Sir Thomas Allen
Candide – Michael Slattery
Paquette – Anna-Jane Casey
Cunegonde – Carla Huhtanen
Maximilian – Sébastien Lemoine
Achmet / Alchemist / Segnor / Grand Inquisitor / Bear-Keeper / Ragotski – Christopher Dee
Charles Edward / Cosmetic Merchant / Inquisitor I / Judge – Andrew Busher
Herman / Junkman / Segnor / Inquisitor II / Croupier / Judge – Mark Meadows
Ivan / Doctor / Inquisitor III / Judge – Bruce Ogsten
The Old Lady – Kim Criswell
Governor / Captain / Vanderdendur / Crook – Bonaventura Bottone

Maida Vale Singers

Trinity College of Music Singers

BBC Concert Orchestra
Rumon Gamba

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 11 February, 2005
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” has a long and convoluted history. Suffice it to say that, following its none-too successful initial Broadway run in 1956, it was not until less than a year before the composer’s death (in 1990) that the work achieved a form which Bernstein was satisfied with. In the intervening years, various productions and collaborators ‘tinkered’ with the conception which Lillian Hellman and Bernstein had devised, sometimes with the compliance of the composer and, sometimes, apparentlynot. John Mauceri’s tireless work on the score culminated in aconvincing Scottish Opera production in 1988, and Bernstein’s concert performances with the LSO in 1989 used the material compiled for that ‘Opera House’ version, with the composer adding his final thoughts. Like its eponymous hero, “Candide” has indeed travelled a long way from its Broadway beginnings.

Fortunately for posterity, Bernstein’s reading is preserved on film (currently unavailable) and in a subsequent studio recording for Deutsche Grammophon. The first of the two Barbican performances was an unforgettable experience for those – including this writer – who were present, with its largely operatic cast and the composer at last able to savour his work of thirty-plus years earlier.

For some, Bernstein’s performance was too ‘heavy’ or ‘operatic’, but one must respect his conception of his own music. Above all, it served to bring out darker qualities in the piece, where tears and regret are never far from the surface laughter and high jinks.

This BBC Concert Orchestra performance did not attempt such profundities, but emphasised the ‘lighter’ qualities of the score, perhaps determined to reflect the work’s designation as a ‘comic operetta’.

It was, by and large, strongly cast, with Sir Thomas Allen presiding as a genial Master of Ceremonies, narrating the story and singing with his customary flair. Pangloss’s “Dear Boy” was superbly projected, with the words finely and aptly coloured. Indeed, hearing the work complete again one was struck by the consistently high quality of the lyrics. There may have been many collaborators and contributors, but the consequence was that Bernstein was able to respond to the resultant verbal imagery with dexterity and imagination.

Furthermore, hearing all the music in the correct sequence(astonishingly not the case with “Candide” until 1988), the sheer fecundity of Bernstein’s inspiration is astounding, and leads one to wonder why there was ever a ‘problem’ with the work in the first place.

As with the even more ill-fated collaboration with Alan Jay Lerner – “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue” – one can only conclude that difficulties arose with the work’s initial production and those collaborating on it. In both instances, the music is on the very highest level of invention. One must conclude that the first productions were not able to do justice to the musical requirements.

Not the least of the demands of “Candide” is that of the casting. The role of Cunegonde requires a soprano of considerable virtuosity for the ultimate of coloratura writing and affectionate operatic parody, “Glitter and be Gay”, which is actually designated ‘aria’ in the score. Carla Huhtanen rose to its challenges quite splendidly, if without effacing memories of June Anderson with the composer, or Barbara Cook of the original cast. But Huhtanen presented a feisty character and was strong in projection throughout the wide-ranging tessitura. I couldn’t quite work out whether a slight thinness of tone was due to the unnecessary amplification. In any event, Huhtanen was also effective in duet with Kim Criswell’s Old Lady in “We are Women”, which came off unusually well in this performance, and in her exchanges with Michael Slattery’s Candide.

Slattery had the right wide-eyed demeanour for the part, his quiet singing being particularly fine. I would have preferred him to have been able to ‘open out’ more in the Puccinian climax of “Nothing more than this” (the start of which was ruined by an unnecessary line of spoken narration – quite uncalled for at this point) and to have been less fussily mannered in the opening of the final “Make our garden grow”. But his eloquent presence and delivery suggested he would be an ideal on-stage exponent of the role. A pity, though, that the lovely “Ballad of Eldorado” was spoilt by slightly too fast a tempo and timpani which were much tooprominent, as Michael Slattery’s singing was pointed and expressive.

Kim Criswell always makes her presence felt wherever and whenever she appears, and her portrayal of the Old Lady was in line with her other characterful assumptions. She confirmed that “I am easily assimilated” is a real showstopper and was responsive to her colleagues in ensembles. Again, the peculiarly ‘muffled’ quality to her voice in ‘assimilated’ was undoubtedly due to afore-mentioned amplification.

Bonaventura Bottone is a seasoned “Candide” performer of his multiple roles and he does not disappoint with his ingratiating Italianate timbre, though Nicolai Gedda’s singing under Bernstein remains something singular and special.

The remaining parts were largely well-taken, and the choralcontributions first-rate.

The BBC Concert Orchestra played with spirit, and there was some notable wind playing – the distinctive timbres of cor anglais and bass clarinet came over most tellingly. But the brass was allowed to be unnecessarily coarse and brash at times, starting with the overture, which was given a remarkably unsubtle reading and blatantly played.

Rumon Gamba perhaps hadn’t quite decided on a clear approach to the score. At times, the Broadway elements were ‘played up’, and this was occasionally effective. But the “Auto-Da-Fe” sequence is much more than a noisy romp, which was how it was projected on this occasion.

Gamba’s flamboyant manner on the podium did not always lead to precision or balanced ensemble, and there was notable lack of cohesion between Kim Criswell and the orchestra at the beginning of “The Venice Gavotte”. At times, the tempos were well-judged; at others, they were on just the wrong side of being either too fast or too slow.

But there must be a real question-mark over the decision to amplify the voices. This was quite uncalled for and, as I have suggested, led to distortions of timbre, which did the singers less than full justice.

Nevertheless, what came across, despite whatever reservations one might have about details of the performance, was the strength of the score and, in particular, its consistency. This might be considered an odd word given its chequered career and the input of Bernstein’s many and various collaborators. But in number after number, Bernstein created music that is so ‘right’ for the drama, the characters and the philosophy underpinning them.

The optimistic, aspiring hymn – I can think of no better word – with which “Candide” concludes is almost unbearably touching at its commencement with the resigned, yet affectionate and determined, exchanges between Candide and Cunegonde building to a powerful, impassioned climax, the likes of which Broadway can surely never have heard before nor, for that matter, since.

Leonard Bernstein more than once expressed the anxiety that he would be remembered only as “the composer of West Side Story”. With a production pending of “On the Town” at ENO, a forthcoming LSO performance of “Mass”, and this ultimately memorable “Candide”, perhaps the composer’s fears were, after all, misplaced.

  • Broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 4 June 2005

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