Series 4 - Bernstein's CandideOur wildly successful collaboration with the University of Lethbridge Opera Workshop returns, this time with a beautiful gem of an operetta from the man who brought you West Side Story – fully staged, and sung in English!

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Series 4 – Bernstein’s Candide
Lillian Hellman, a successful Broadway playwright, proposed the project of adapting the French novella Candide to Leonard Bernstein in 1953. Hellman and Bernstein had collaborated previously on The Lark, a play based on the trial of Joan of Arc for which Bernstein wrote incidental music. Candide, ou l’Optimisme is a 1759 French novella written by Voltaire, the pen name for Francois-Marie Arouet, a very influential French Enlightenment philosopher. The book was written as an evaluation of the optimistic outlook of German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz which was summarised by Voltaire as, “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” Voltaire had witnessed the Seven Years’ War and the 1755 Lisbon earthquake and was inspired to write the novella as a critique on the value of adopting a forcibly optimistic perspective in the face of senseless tragedy.

Hellman stated that she found Candide a “great book, full of laughter, wisdom, comment, satire and bite. I thought it as an attack on all rigid thinking, on all isms.” The near-impossible difficulty in adapting the book to the stage was obvious: it depicts numerous adventures taking place in a large number of countries on multiple continents. The original version required scenes in Portugal, France, Spain, Argentina, the jungles of South America, the mythical city of El Dorado, Surinam, the Atlantic Ocean and various locations in Italy. In these numerous landscapes, Candide experiences various misfortunes which eventually lead him to adopt an attitude of acceptance, wisdom and light cynicism. This is contrary to the philosophy of Leibniz, which is taught to him by his tutor Dr. Pangloss, who is part of the journey of constant tragedy.

Cognisant of the seemingly insurmountable challenge of presenting this ambitious story on stage, Hellman went through fourteen different revisions before she arrived at a version that she and her collaborators determined to be theatrically workable. The operetta premiered in New York on December 1, 1956 on Broadway at the Martin Beck Theatre. The initial performances were largely considered unsuccessful and the production was cancelled after two months. Many criticised Hellman’s writing style for its seriousness and for the fact that it was incongruous with the wit and humour of Bernstein’s music. Some believe the negativity in the press was possibly due to the audience being unfamiliar with the Voltaire novella and confused by its philosophical intent. Nevertheless, it seems that Hellman took most of the blame to heart as she refused to have her work be part of the numerous revisions the show underwent during the next several decades until Bernstein’s death in 1990.

Bernstein was involved in seven significant revivals of Candide under the direction of Harold Prince, one of the most successful Broadway director-producers of all time. The first of these involved the commission of a new ‘book’ (the operatic term for the dialogue and stage direction) from British writer Hugh Wheeler, known for his many popular works, including Sweeney Todd. This 1973 version was more successful than the first and ran for 740 performances over two years. In 1982 at the request of the New York City Opera, the show was expanded again and became a staple of the NYCO’s repertoire. In 1988, Bernstein decided to work on his ‘final revised version’ which began as a collaboration with the Scottish Opera. At this point, Hellman and Wheeler had both died, so Bernstein commissioned British actor and writer John Wells for the libretto. Before his death in 1990, Bernstein recorded this ‘final version’ and produced a commentary for it, both of which are still in distribution.

The locations, order of songs, and philosophical conclusion were changed numerous times but the story that is common to all versions is that of Candide, a young German man who is taught the Leibnizian version of optimism by his teacher Dr. Pangloss and falls in love with Cunegonde, the daughter of a baron in the German area of Westphalia. He endures or witnesses a whole series of misfortunes, including natural disasters, the Spanish Inquisition, theft, prostitution, kidnapping, shipwreck and much more. These events force him to reconsider the optimistic philosophy of his teacher and take on more of a disposition of realism, skepticism, and an acceptance that life is not perfect and that one doesn’t have to pretend that it is.

The music is often considered to be the most significant achievement of Leonard Bernstein as a composer. He called it his “Valentine card to European music” and we can hear within it many different European dances, operatic conventions and stylistic traits. The aria ‘Glitter and be Gay’, sung by Cunegonde in the face of tragedy, is considered to be one of the most popular pieces in Candide. It has become a showpiece for sopranos and is one of the most famous musical pieces that has taken on a life of its own outside of the operetta. Critically acclaimed right from the 1956 premiere, ‘Glitter and be Gay’ has been recorded and featured in concerts around the world. The other extremely successful piece of music is the overture: the only piece that Bernstein orchestrated himself. He conducted it in a performance with the New York Philharmonic on June 26, 1957 and since then the work has remained a staple of their repertoire. The overture is considered to be not only one of the most successful and popular pieces by Bernstein but that of any other twentieth century composer. To honour the passing of Leonard Bernstein in 1990, the New York Philharmonic played the piece without the late conductor, or any conductor, and continues to do so to this day. Notably the New York Philharmonic played the Overture to Candide at the historic concert on February 26, 2008 in Pyongyang, North Korea.

Jordan Berg