The best of all possible centenary tributes – Bernstein’s Candide soared and roared at the Barbican

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Almost exactly twenty-nine years ago, Leonard Bernstein conducted the London Symphony Orchestra for the last time. The close relationship between Bernstein and the orchestra, begun in the mid-60s, came to its end with a famously flamboyant concertante performance of Candide (1956/1989), a fiercely satirical comic operetta, originally written for Broadway. 

Based on a Voltaire novella, Candide is one of the most elaborate music theatre pieces Bernstein ever wrote. Voltaire’s utmost satirical social commentary provided Bernstein and his collaborators, Lilian Hellman and Richard Wilbur, a poignant starting point, resulting in an ever-contemporary take on the profound injustices and absurdities of our western society.

Now, twenty-nine years later, London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus were back at work with Candide, this time with Marin Alsop, one of the most avid Bernstein advocates at the helm. A Bernstein pupil back in the 80s, Alsop has conducted most of the Bernstein oeuvre over the years, including two centenary tributes with the LSO earlier in the 17/18 season, featuring the Jeremiah (1942) and Kaddish (1963) symphonies. 

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In addition, last December, LSO’s music director Sir Simon Rattle conducted a semi-staged performance of Bernstein’s Wonderful Town (1953) alongside The Age of Anxiety (1947-49/1965) with Krystian Zimerman as soloist. With the LSO’s special relationship with Bernstein and Candide in mind, this weekend’s programming was a most natural choice for the ultimate centenary tribute. 

Joined by a splendid cast featuring such big names as Sir Thomas Allen as Doctor Pangloss and narrator and Anne Sofie von Otter as the Old Lady alondside Leonardo Capalbo in the title role and Jane Archibald as Cunegonde, with the London Symphony Chorus, coached into top shape by Simon Halsey, the stage was set for meeting high expectations.

Given that the 1989 Bernstein version has been continuously available, both as concert video and studio audio from the very beginning, these performances have been seen as definitive by many. In addition, on Saturday, there were many music lovers in the Barbican audience with vivid memories of their live experiences of the 1989 concert with Bernstein himself.   

Yet, while these documents form the Bernstein performances remain as obvious points of reference, there are certain reservations with them. First, there is a huge amount of music written and re-written by Bernstein for Candide, giving rise to the question of edition used. Since no single performance could include all of those musical numbers and their ossias, each performance of Candide provides a different perspective upon the work itself.

Second, the 1989 concert performances and subsequent Abbey Road studio recording were burdened with an ill-timed influenza, dubbed as the Royal Flu by Bernstein. While riveting examples of love, commitment and artistry, the illness took its toll, although to a surprisingly little extent, on those performances. 

In the end, even though we tend to cherish certain performances and recordings in a quasi-fetished manner over time, there is still, all things considered, a lot to be said about Candide in concert, on stage as well as on recording. 

This weekend’s semi-staged Barbican performances, directed by Garnett Bruce, bear close likeness to the ones Bernstein conducted. Yet, there are notable differences too. 

The first act was extensively worked out, including those short, but ever-important incidental pieces, such as fanfares, roaring Storm and Earthquake Musics as well as several transitory passages, none of them heard in the 1989 performances. The wonderfully phantasmagorical  Auto-da-fé was given in its shorter version, instead of the more extensive one featured in the revised full score, published posthumously in 1993.

Due to temporal limitations, the second act was condensed, somewhat, with understandable, yet deplorable omissions of such key numbers as the tongue-in-cheek twelve-tone song, Quiet, the sardonic Martin’s Laughing Song as well as the hilarious gavotte from the Venice sequence. 

Despite these omissions, the Barbican audience was provided with a remarkable take on Candide. The best of all possible Candides, one is tempted to announce. 

The riveting put-your-themes-together-and-trot-them overture was given a fabulous performance by Alsop and the LSO. While often played with feverish tempi, Alsop paced the overture a bit more generously, à la late Bernstein, to a stunning effect. With the glorious LSO sound, everything just clicked with this performance, setting the evening well in motion.

In the opening scene, we are introduced to our Westphalian protagonists in their idle pompousness and hypocrisy. Their guiding star, Dr. Pangloss has incepted the idea of philosophical optimism into their minds, in the manner of G.W. von Leibniz (as seen by Voltaire). 

Since the world has been created by a good creator, it must best of all possible worlds, the logic goes. Everything is right and good, if only we manage to look at the big picture. This line of thought becomes evident in the marvellous song The Best of All Possible Worlds, depicting Dr. Pangloss’ lessons with his Westphalian pupils. 

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However, for Candide, the world starts to crumble as his proposal to Cunegonde is rejected by her family. Then a war breaks, and the Westphalian people, including Cunegonde and her family, are slaughtered. In a pursuit for a meaning to his life, Candide begins his travels.  

A series of misadventures ensues, resulting in a series of brilliant musical numbers, such as Dr. Pangloss’ syphilis-inspired Dear Boy and the appearance of the Spanish inquisition in Auto-da-fé. 

As the first act proceeds, Cunegonde turns out to be alive in Paris. She contemplates her current state in a rivetingly flamboyant solo, Glitter and Be Gay, ravishingly sung by Jane Archibald with Alsop and the LSO fully in accordance with her. 

In the Paris sequence, Cunegonde is accompanied by the Old Lady, fabulously portrayed by Anne Sofie von Otter, whose bravura solo number I Am Easily Assimilated deservedly brought the house down. 

Joined by Candide via somewhat absurd series on coincidences, the first act closes with Quartet Finale as the protagonists set sail for the New World. Magnificently performed by the whole ensemble with Alsop, the Quartet Finale was a perfect mood-setter for the intermission.  

In the second act, set in various locations of South America, and finally Venice, Cunegonde is betrothed to The Governor, whose cynically opportunistic serenade was wonderfully sung by tenor Thomas Atkins. One of the highlights of the second act Archibald’s and von Otter’s duet, We Are Women ensued, performed with absolute brilliance.

Meanwhile, Candide and Paquette end up in a detour through Eldorado. Followed by a cascade of most hilarious plot twists, the protagonists find themselves back at a casino in Venice. With the catchy song What’s the Use, they contemplate their pointless daily actions. 

Finally done with their choices, lead by Candide they herald their new, less superficial life goals in the rousing finale, Make our Garden Grow, a soaring closing for soli, chorus and orchestra. 

Throughout the evening, one could but admire both Leonardo Capalbo’s Candide and Sir Thomas Allen’s Dr. Pangloss. Joined by Archibald and von Otter, the lead singers formed a superb ensemble. With profound vocal and theatrical virtues at play, this was quite the ideal cast for Candide.     

In the supporting roles, Carmen Artaza’s Paquette and Marcus Farnsworth’s Maximillian were also pure joy. As for narration, one could but love Sir Thomas Allen’s wonderful stage presence and his perfect sense of comedy.

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Another highlight of the evening was the London Symphony Chorus. The a cappella numbers, Westphalia Chorale and Universal Good were a treat, alongside all those great choral parts with the orchestra.

The LSO and Alsop were a dream team, making Bernstein’s often tricky rhytms, juicy melodies and colour-hued orchestration shine in such ever-splendid manner. Garnett Bruce’s sublime direction served the performance well, rooting itself in the stupendous comedy inherent in the music and text itself.

What a day!

   

London Symphony Orchestra

Marin Alsop, conductor

 

Leonard Bernstein: Candide (1956/1989) 

 

Leonardo Capalbo, Candide

Jane Archibald, Cunegonde

Anne Sofie von Otter, The Old Lady

Sir Thomas Allen, Dr Pangloss & Narrator 

Carmen Artaza, Paquette

Marcus Farnsworth, Maximillian

Thomas Atkins, tenor

Liam Bonthrone, tenor

Frederick Jones, tenor

Guildhall School Young Artists 

 

London Symphony Chorus 

Simon Halsey, chorus director

 

Garnett Bruce, director

 

Barbican Centre, London

Saturday 8 December 2018, 3 pm 

c Jari Kallio

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