After watching LA Opera’s new Candide I'm still not sure whether it’s half an opera, three quarters an operetta, or a musical and a half, but who cares when director Francesca Zambello’s team put together a production that was so swell to look at and so easy to fall in love with. There was no costume that wasn’t addictive to look at, not one moment when the backstage conceit didn’t work to the extent that an extravagant El Dorado sequence with Las Vegas showgirls strutting about would have put a smile on Busby Berkeley’s face. James Conlon in the pit had total control of the motion and flow, and the LA Opera Orchestra soared. Before the intermission it was like one of those MGM musicals when Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney put on their own shows. The company has already added a matinee and could probably sell out an extended run.

Kelsey Grammer (as Voltaire)
© Ken Howard

Candide is not flawless: after a first act of indescribable brilliance, a second act of indescribable length suggests that Bernstein still had something to learn from his Mozart in getting his writers to give him great closing material. Still, this Candide is a stunner.

Jack Swanson’s Candide, Erin Morley’s Cunégonde, and Peabody Southwell’s Paquette stood out vocally in a cast that was impressively strong from top to bottom. Morley spun “Glitter and Be Gay” with almost superhuman insouciance – not to mention nailing all the high notes – although she could have flirted more with her “Aha!” exclamations. Swanson was perfectly ardent, and he started hitting some authentically dramatic and vocally resplendent high notes himself as he warmed up. Southwell showed no shame in winning the audience’s heart with her voice and antics, as did Christine Ebersole in her key role.

Christine Ebersole (Old Lady) and Erin Morley (Cunegonde)
© Ken Howard

When the original Broadway cast recording of Bernstein’s Candide came out in 1956 it put an indelible stamp on the music in its time and for all time. Ingénues with a soprano voice in every town and hamlet across the country dreamed of singing Cunégonde the way Barbara Cook did, and the cooky, hip, vital music was what a lot of Bernstein’s most ardent young fans at the time were so enamored with. Equally to the point in an America emerging from Joe McCarthy’s cruel shadows, Bernstein’s liberal politics and activism gave them courage. At about the same time Bernstein also recorded Mozart’s Piano Concertos K.450 and K.453 and you can hear how his work on Candide was as fresh and exciting as his work playing and conducting Mozart.

As the evening wore on, however, and Act 1 inevitably turned into Act 2, Kelsey Grammer’s brave attempt at Pangloss tended to get lost in the shuffle. His decision to meet the role’s singular challenge must have seemed a reasonable proposition, to speak in a baritone voice that mostly avoided the sniveling tone that is his basic persona on his Frasier sitcom. This allowed him to sing in a pleasant, light baritone voice when required with what sounded like some gentle amplification, but it wasn’t much help with the tiresome script – and despite his mostly delicious enunciation, in the vast stretches of the Pavilion the audience deserved supertitles for the long stretches of narration. And there’s also something to be said for being able to better handle “funny” names like the Baron of Schloss Thunder-ten-Tronck, of which there many.

Jack Swanson (Candide)
© Ken Howard

The book as handed down from the original contentious collaboration is an earnest tribute to Cole Porter, but W.S. Gilbert of Gilbert and Sullivan wrote wittier and even more topically relevant books for far worse music. In fact, Bernstein rarely wrote better music or more generously flaunted a genius whose many talents yielded such a multitude of benefits. But when you start aching to hear couplets from Penzance and Patience you know you’re in a surreal land.

What remained in this wonderfully misguided production was overwhelmingly great entertainment. It could have been campier and sexier but not much more musically right, which is usually the case when Conlon’s at the helm. It also could have addressed the crucible of political controversy that surrounded Bernstein in those years; the US State Department had punitively if briefly withheld Bernstein’s passport application several years before Candide and had threatened to investigate Bernstein’s alleged Communist ties. Little of this surfaced explicitly in the LA Opera production although there were sympathetic groans and smatterings of applause for “Come pilgrims to America’s new domains of God”. And lines like “Women are never lost. God looks out for them” created unintended, awkward nano-moments.