Arts & Entertainment

In 'Candide,' LA Opera livens up Bernstein's too-big Broadway show

Kelsey Grammer as Voltaire in LA Opera's 2018 production of
Kelsey Grammer as Voltaire in LA Opera's 2018 production of "Candide"
Ken Howard

KPCC cultural correspondent Marc Haefele reviews "Candide" at the LA Opera, starring Kelsey Grammer and Christine Ebersole. There are five more performances remaining, through February 18.

 

Ridicule of obsolete philosophy is not the best platform on which to build an opera. But that’s what Leonard Bernstein did with his “Candide,” basing it on Voltaire’s picaresque pastichio attacking Gottfried Leibniz’ determinist optimism. Like Beethoven’s “Fidelio,” it’s been through myriad transformations - none definitive - since its 1956 Broadway debut.

Broadway? So what is “Candide” doing at the LA Opera?

First, it is the 100th anniversary of America’s favorite Wunderkind’s birth, and Lennie’s music is popping up all over.

Second, “Candide” contains some of the best Bernstein: It isn’t just melodious, it is prodigiously tuney. A lot of action, a lot of dancing, a lot of parodistic choruses,  clever and otherwise. Several levels of action and a big cast. As my companion said, “It would be hard to sleep through this.”

But it's just as hard to stay engaged with it. Sired by Grand Opera out of the Broadway musical, “Candide” is a bastard jackass, a hard-working beast, but often unlovely to behold.  Particularly compared to Bernstein's “West Side Story,” which has characters you care deeply about and a genuine and passionate plot, cribbed from Shakespeare.

Jack Swanson as Candide and Erin Morley as Cunegonde in LA Opera's 2018 production of
Jack Swanson as Candide and Erin Morley as Cunegonde in LA Opera's 2018 production of "Candide"
Ken Howard

But “Candide,” has no characters, just stereotypes: there’s the title protagonist, virtually brain-dead throughout; his true love, Cunegonde, a downtrodden, wildly avaricious noblewoman; their mentor, Dr. Pangloss, a strawman version of  philosopher Leibniz (now venerated as a grandparent of cybertech) whose repeated sputter is that “This is the best of all possible worlds.” (Think for a moment and you’ll realize that this the most pessimistic statement one could possibly make about human existence.) 

After undergoing decades of tragedies, loss and disaster, Candide finally gains affluence and a very shopworn version of Cunegonde, and realizes he’s been idealizing her all along. With an inspiration straight out of Paul Coelho, he sweeps Cunegonde and all his surviving friends to a mountain farmstead where they can grow their own carrot, like so many Haight Street hippies fleeing to Humboldt County.

The women are all whores, the men mostly fools, but they are all occasionally very funny. Nearly everyone sings exquisitely in the sprightly LA Opera production, borrowed from New York’s Glimmerglass opera: the only exception is the highly-billed Kelsey Grammer’s Pangloss, whose singing is strictly Summer Stock.

Jack Swanson, a tenor with a fine range, played the gormless Candide for laughs, but also pathos. Erin Morley did more than one thought possible with the cardboard- cutout character of Cunegonde, not just with her coloratura stunts--particularly in her showstopper aria, “Glitter and Be Gay”-- but in her persuasive portrayal of the earliest to the final stages of a woman’s life. Christine Ebersole lifted up the potentially tiresome role of the Old Lady; Peabody Southwell brought a fine vocal and physical presence to the (literally) infectious role of Paquette. Taylor Raven was wonderfully sinister as the treacherous slave trader Vanderbendur. Conductor James Conlon set an appropriately fearsome pace, and so did the ensemble and chorus.

But before the second act was well under way, the show felt like a long evening. How much less wearing it would have played, cut by a half hour. Or more. This would help make “Candide” into what it really wants to be: neither a Broadway hit nor a Grand Opera, but simply a good, old-fashioned, rip-roaring operetta.