Candide is a witty satiric fable, intelligent, literary but not to a fault, and vastly entertaining. Created by a team of collaborators who fell out at different times in the work’s 52 year history – at one point or another, Lillian Hellman, Richard Wilbur, John Latouche, Dorothy Parker, Stephen Sondheim and, of course, composer Leonard Bernstein had a hand in it – it is unique in the operatic or semi-operatic oeuvre. Because of its weirdly episodic nature – it takes place in at least a half dozen locales – it is a dream project for a director and set designer. Almost all of the productions in New York City since 1982 have relied on a staging by Hal Prince, with  blazes of color and constant, often slapstick movements; a production by Francesco Zambello at the Glimmerglass Festival a few years ago was just as busy.

Paul Appleby (Candide) and John Lithgow (Dr Pangloss) © Chris Lee
Paul Appleby (Candide) and John Lithgow (Dr Pangloss)
© Chris Lee

Performance history of this work is so spotty and has changed so many times over the years that there is no definitive critical edition of the score. Hal Prince’s edition for the City Opera has become known as “the opera-house” edition but scholars are quick to mention the hundreds of pages of text and scores lying about in different collections and libraries. Indeed, the exquisite duet “One hand, one heart,” from West Side Story was originally composed for Candide. The edition used for the Concert in Celebration of the Bernstein Centennial at Carnegie Hall was first performed by Scottish Opera in 1988, and it was recorded in 1989 for DG with Bernstein himself at the helm – the first time he'd ever conducted it. With Lenny’s imprimatur, one might say it is the definitive version.

“What a day for an auto-da-fé!” © Chris Lee
“What a day for an auto-da-fé!”
© Chris Lee

The concert was not just a stand-up-and-sing event. In place of sets, projections above the Orchestra and Chorus let us know where we were – from the baronial home of the characters to the countryside, through ocean voyages and public burnings, from Paris to Lisbon to Buenos Aires and Eldorado – provided by Wendall K Harrington, and they were as whimsical as they were crucial to the narrative. There was dancing for four soloists as well as the singers with choreography by Joshua Bergasse and colorful costumes by Tracy Christensen. Gary Griffin kept cast and dancers moving about and interacting, with clever entrances and exits.

“Make our garden grow” © Chris Lee
“Make our garden grow”
© Chris Lee

And what a cast of singers! I suspect the title role has found an ideal interpreter in tenor Paul Appleby, comfortable on stage, with his innocent yet ardent demeanor and supple tenor, capable of smooth, legato lines from fine exclamations to sweet pianissimi. And he has a wide-eyed charm that never oozed into bathos. Erin Morley made the music of Cunegonde sound matter-of-fact, with pinpoint accuracy above the staff in "Glitter and be Gay" (the Ds and E flats joined by an interpolated high F sharp), coquettish bearing and an ideal attitude of sassy tragi-comedy. In the dual role of Voltaire and Dr Pangloss, the multi-award winning actor John Lithgow pranced about, and narrated and sang (the character's only song, "Dear Boy," was re-inserted for him; it is a weak spot in the score) with verve and an on-again, off-again puzzling British accent. Soprano Patricia Racette, normally at home in Strauss' Salome and Puccini's Madama Butterfly, proved her comic chops as The Old Lady and sang "I am easily assimilated" with robust tone and the perfect "High middle Polish" and Spanish accent.

Erin Morley (Cunegonde) © Chris Lee
Erin Morley (Cunegonde)
© Chris Lee

Ryan Silverman's undertaking of the vain Maximillian, the Grand Inquisitor, the Captain and Reverend Commandant were nicely delineated; Bryonha Marie Parham sensual, dark-hued sound was ideal for Paquette, and William Burden's stentorian Governor impressed mightily. Surprises consisted of a one line walk-on each by Len Cariou and Danny Burstein as the Archbishop and the Jew, respectively who share Cunegonde in Paris, and none other than Marilyn Horne, in a wheelchair, who delivered her spoken lines as the Queen of Eldorado with authority.

Rob Fisher led the Orchestra of St Luke's and the large Mansfield University Concert Choir accurately and energetically, balancing the soloists, whose voices were effectively amplified, and musicians securely. This was clearly a special event, homage and celebration, brilliantly executed.