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Garden Variety

Someday, someone will get Candide right, but the latest reinvention, at the New York Philharmonic, reduces the characters to cartoon clichés.

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Kristin Chenoweth and Paul Groves in Candide at Avery Fisher Hall.  

What to do with Candide? Nearly 50 years after Leonard Bernstein’s unclassifiable opera-operetta-musical first puzzled Broadway audiences, this extravaganza has been looking for its proper home. A major part of the search has involved trying to hit upon a practical performing edition for a work that seems to turn up in a different version whenever it gets revived. I saw the Ur-Candide as a college student when it came to Boston for previews in 1956, a seemingly endless but dazzling mess. Apparently, every scrap of available material was tested onstage during those initial tryouts—on the night I saw it, the curtain didn’t come down until nearly 1 a.m. (As the show’s director, Tyrone Guthrie, once mused, “Rossini and Cole Porter seemed to have been rearranging Götterdämmerung.”) Since then, many hands have retooled the book, lyrics, and score, until Bernstein passed a benediction on the “final revised version” in 1989, a year before he died.

Candide’s latest reincarnation has been at the New York Philharmonic, which recently put on an elaborate semi-staged production that took note of the composer’s last words on the subject but hardly followed them very closely. Director Lonny Price cobbled together yet another version from various past editions, but without making any significant improvements and doing some harm along the way. Much music was cut from Act Two, which only makes it seem more sporadic and disheveled than ever. Worse, this latest adaptation of Hugh Wheeler’s rewritten book completely reduces the characters to cartoon clichés and robs the piece of its most treasurable quality: a genuine feeling for troubled humanity, even amid all the hilarity and craziness.

“Chenoweth’s terminally chirpy soprano put me in mind of a factory whistle.”

I feared as much after reading in the program that Price’s all-time favorite Candide production was Hal Prince’s egregious 1973 one-act version, with its stripped-down score, crude humor, and airy disregard of the work’s musical and vocal values. Price compounds this by adding a lot of cheap jokes, witless sight gags, and dumb topical references, never more irritatingly intrusive than when the piece is trying to strike a note of wistful poignancy. Candide is portrayed as the ultimate doofus without any redeeming points to make us care about him. With almost nothing left to sing, Dr. Pangloss hardly exists at all except as a faceless and not very amusing narrator. Cunegonde becomes a loud, squealing, supremely irritating super-slut, while Maximillian minces about like the Queen of the May, if anyone still finds that sort of tiresome gay caricature a laugh riot.

Weaving enthusiastically in, around, and about the Philharmonic musicians, the elaborately costumed soloists worked hard and on occasion even managed to rise above it all. If only he had been given the opportunity to show himself to better advantage, Paul Groves could be the best of all possible Candides with his sweetly unblemished operatic tenor, clear diction, and appealing stage presence. No doubt Kristin Chenoweth as Cunegonde has her admirers, but her overmiked, terminally chirpy coloratura soprano mostly put me in mind of a factory whistle, while Sir Thomas Allen was totally wasted as Pangloss. Patti LuPone suffered least as the Old Lady, setting just the right tone of mordant humor for this eternal survivor. Marin Alsop conducted the Philharmonic energetically, but under such adverse conditions, it was impossible to savor the wit, charm, intoxicating cross-rhythms, and ingenious pastiches of this endlessly inventive score.

I’m more than content with Bernstein’s last thoughts on Candide, but one day, if and when Lillian Hellman’s original book is made available once again, it might be useful to go back to the beginning and see whether anything can yet be done to get it right. Perhaps not, but this Candide fan still remembers how he emerged from that first marathon performance long ago, very tired but also very happy.


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