As the culmination of two seasons celebrating Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday, The Philadelphia Orchestra gave its first-ever performances of Candide, his “comic operetta” based on Voltaire’s satirical novella Candide, ou l’Optimisme, mocking the philosophy that we live in “the best of all possible worlds”. Since the 1956 premiere, Lillian Hellman’s original adaptation (inspired by Voltaire’s relevance to the horrifying world of McCarthyism) has been replaced by Hugh Wheeler’s book, used for this version. Most of the lyrics are by Richard Wilbur (as here); other contributors have included Dorothy Parker and (from the beginning) Bernstein himself.

Erin Morley, Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Amanda Lynn Bottoms
© The Philadelphia Orchestra

In its mix of satire, fantasy, absurdity, farce and social critique, Candide has probably been staged in as many ways as Wagner’s Ring. Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin and director Kevin Newbury see Candide as a coming-of-age story, placing it in their own high-school years, specifically 1992, and making the German region of Westphalia a USA knockoff.

A large illuminated sign proclaimed “Congratulations, Seniors”; later, it blazed a series of laughter- and groan-inspiring “course descriptions” and event announcements (“Cunning Linguists”, “Good Friday Night Lights” etc). Andrew Boyce’s multi-purpose set design was otherwise mostly lockers and a double-sink bathroom with a mirror showing black-and-white videos of the era, including Sex Education with AIDS slogans – amid non-stop activity by students, teachers, cheerleaders (one male), and Newbury’s versions of the main characters. Amazingly, it all fit in the downstage third of the stage, the orchestra upstage, and Nezet-Seguin (in blue polo shirt emblazoned with “Westphalia Music” and a treble clef sign) having fun on the podium in between. Costumes by Paul Carey and hair by Ann Ford-Coates recreated the era; while most were appropriately banal, Cunegonde looked hilarious in blonde hair and bangs and orange short skirt, bosom pushed up between backpack straps.

As amusing as much of this version was (I laughed often), it also weakened some aspects: Eldorado was merely pot-smokers wandering about; the slave auction replaced by competing cheerleaders; the battle turned into a modified football game, the auto-da-fé not very Inquisitorial. In Candide, humor, misadventures, catastrophes and deaths (and resurrections) have meaning but only if the biting mockery is clear.

Candide in Philadelphia
© The Philadelphia Orchestra

Narration is part of Candide, usually by Dr Pangloss, to make some sense of the nonsense and for (in)approrpriate commentary. Here were two narrators: actor Bradley Cooper, slated to portray Bernstein in an upcoming biopic, and English actress Carey Mulligan. Seated downstage left at two lecterns, Cooper was well-paced and clear, with wry tone and look when a Voltaire-reference matched current times (huge ovation), while Mulligan’s elegant English cadence was almost too delicate in contrast with the large cast’s American ones.

Alek Shrader was sweet in voice and portrayal as the benighted, naïve Candide, here the class geek, yet had strength and ringing high notes when needed. Much of the most beautiful music in the score is for Candide, as in “It Must Be So” early on. So it was wrong to cut the lovely, significant “Nothing More Than This” in Act 2.

Soprano Erin Morley as Cunegonde has the technique and bright tone for a sparkling “Glitter and Be Gay” and struck an interpretive balance between cluelessness and tenderness (yearbook page: Most Likely To become President). As he did for Candide alone, Bernstein wrote beautiful music for the love duets, similar to those between Tony and Maria – with unsurprisingly similar motifs – where Morley’s voice was warm and gentle. Nézet-Séguin brought out this music’s richness in the depth and breadth of the orchestra timbre, just as he demonstrated the ensemble’s crisper, faster side in “Glitter” and elsewhere.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin and cast
© The Philadelphia Orchestra

A huge-haired Denyce Graves, mostly in garish red gym-jacket and pants, made The Old Lady seem very youthful, in her prancing, dancing, speaking and most importantly, singing. She brought enormous verve to “I Am Easily Assimilated” but in my experience, nobody has projected its irony better than Christa Ludwig, reminiscent of certain sly Mahler Lieder she often sang with Bernstein.

Taking away much of the commentary from Dr Pangloss reduced his central importance; tenor Kevin Vortmann, strong in voice and figure as a sleazy tough-guy “Favorite Teacher” with motorcycle helmet, deserved more. Tenor William Burden as the Governor did not sound as if he had made his Philadelphia Orchestra debut in 1997 (Messiah): his voice was fresh, his high notes strong and comfortable – and he reveled in the role. Newbury et al turned tall, leggy mezzo-soprano Amanda Lynn Bottoms into an imposing Paquette in afro and scary black jacket and pants, the school misfit. I wish she had had more to sing: a natural actress, she has an impressive voice (I have heard/seen her at Curtis Institute).

Candide stands out in musical theater for its phenomenal overture and a moving, beautiful finale for full ensemble: “Make Our Garden Grow” – the sudden brief switch to chorus a cappella is a powerful touch of genius.