Bernstein: Candide


BORN: August 25, 1918. Lawrence, Massachusetts
DIED: October 14, 1990. New York City

COMPOSED/PREMIERES: Bernstein composed Candide from 1954 through August 1956, with Hershy Kay assisting with the orchestration; the libretto was by Lillian Hellman, based on the novella Candide, ou l’Optimisme, by Voltaire, the pen-name of François-Marie Arouet (1694-1778). The show was unveiled at a try-out in Boston, on October 29, 1956, and reached Broadway on December 1 of that year, at the Martin Beck Theatre. The original production was directed by Tyrone Guthrie and conducted by Samuel Krachmalnick, and the cast included Robert Rounseville as Candide, Barbara Cook as Cunégonde, Max Adrian as Dr. Pangloss, and Irra Petini as the Old Lady. The score underwent revisions for ensuing productions, with adaptations to the book coming from Hugh Wheeler and to the text from Hellman, Richard Wilbur, John La Touche, Dorothy Parker, Stephen Sondheim, John Mauceri, John Wells, and Bernstein himself. CONCERT VERSION—The version performed here was created for the Scottish Opera in 1988—the score carried the notation “Adapted for Scottish Opera by John Wells and John Mauceri”—and was unveiled by that company on May 19, 1988, at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow (a preview took place on May 17), conducted by Mauceri and directed by Wells and Jonathan Miller. The cast included Mark Beudert (Candide), Marilyn Hill Smith (Cunégonde), Nickolas Grace (Dr. Pangloss), and Ann Howard (Old Lady)

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST AND ONLY—April 1993. David Zinman conducted the US premiere of the Scottish Opera version, with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus and soloists Tracey Welborn, Lisa Saffer, Jonathan Green, Maureen Forrester, John Lankston, Juliana Gondek, Kurt Ollmann, Gregory Moore, Steven Rogino, Richard Haile, Andrew Morgan, and Matthew Swyers

INSTRUMENTATION: The score for the Scottish Opera Version calls for an orchestra of 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), oboe (doubling English horn), 2 clarinets (1st doubling E-flat clarinet, 2nd doubling bass clarinet), bassoon, 2 horns, 2 trumpets (1st doubling cornet), 2 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, tenor drum, bass drum, suspended cymbal, crash cymbals, high-hat, xylophone, triangle, glockenspiel, tambourine, gong, ratchet, whip, 2 woodblocks, cowbell, maracas, gourds, bongos, steel drums, hand drums, castanets, chimes, harp, and strings

DURATION: About 2 hours

SYNOPSIS  In the castle of Baron Thunder-Ten-Tronck in Westphalia, Dr. Pangloss tutors four children based on his philosophy that “all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.” The children are Cunégonde and Maximilian, the beautiful daughter and son of the Baron, Paquette, a servant girl, and Candide, a bastard cousin. Candide and Cunégonde fall in love and once their feelings are discovered, Candide is banished from Barony and tricked into joining the Bulgarian army to ravage his own homeland. After many misadventures, Candide is borne to Portugal where he discovers Cunégonde raped and almost dead. Pangloss, who is now a begger, is also discovered and they are reunited and sentenced before the Spanish Inquisition and Pangloss is hanged. Candide manages to escape with Cunégonde, thanks to the Old Lady, and they set forth on a harrowing journey to the New World. There they are reunited with Maximilian (disguised as a woman) and Paquette, whom the Governor of Cartagena, Colombia has purchased as concubines. The Governor falls for Maximilian and is so disgusted upon learning his true gender that he decides to execute him, but later decides to sell him to a monastery instead. Candide and Maximilian argue over Cunégonde and Candide stabs Maximilian. After further misadventures and becoming separated from his friends once more, Candide ends up leaving the New World and making his way back across the ocean where he is again joined by Maximilian (newly brought back to life), Paquette, and eventually even Cunégonde who has since become a prostitute in a gambling casino. Destitute, the four go to see a wise man that turns out to be Pangloss who survived the hanging. Their old teacher reveals new wisdom to the quartet that man must “work from dawn til’ dusk, in the fields, patiently learning to make his garden grow.”

THE BACKSTORY  In the fall of 1953, librettist Lillian Hellman suggested the idea of collaborating with Leonard Bernstein on a stage work based on Candide, seeing as an earlier collaboration they had flirted with (on the subject of Eva Perón) had failed to take root. By January 1954, Bernstein was firmly committed to the project, which he initially envisioned as a full-scale three-act opera. Hellman began fashioning Voltaire’s volume into a book for the show (often making adaptations nowhere suggested in the original novella), and John La Touche and Richard Wilbur were enlisted to pen the lyrics, although Hellman, Dorothy Parker, and Bernstein himself all added further contributions to the script.

It seemed like a fine idea, but the slender volume posed more problems than anyone had anticipated. It is a picaresque novel in which the hero zips around the globe encountering one situation after another, rarely staying put long enough for any of them to undergo much development. It makes for entertaining, even breathless reading, but turning it into a stage piece was not an easy matter. How would one instill a sense of unity in an operetta that begins in the “Teutonical rusticity” of Westphalia and gallops on through scenes set in Lisbon, Paris, Cádiz, Buenos Aires, the South American jungle, the Incan city of Eldorado, Surinam, the Atlantic Ocean, Venice, and the countryside of northern Italy? Hellman had written “well-made plays” and movie-scripts before, such as The Little Foxes, but nothwithstanding her vaunted wit, she had never penned a comedy, which is what this show needed to be. Director Tyrone Guthrie was at a similar disadvantage. His credentials were impecccable; his curriculum vitae included directing productions at the Metropolitan Opera and Sadler’s Wells, heading the Old Vic, and even serving as founding director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada. But Broadway was virgin territory to him, and he seemed not always in sync with the rough-and-tumble entailed in revisions and quick turnarounds.

THE MUSIC  Some of Bernstein’s composition of Candide overlapped with his work on West Side Story. On the face of it, the two stage works seem entirely dissimilar—Candide a descendant of European operetta, West Side Story a profoundly American paean to urban grittiness. Despite the disparity, music flowed in both directions between the two scores: the duet “O Happy We” in Candide started life as a discarded duet between Tony and Maria in West Side Story, while West Side Story’s “One Hand, One Heart” and “Gee, Officer Krupke” originated in Candide before finding their proper places.

Bernstein said that his score was a valentine to European music. Traditional light-opera forms populate the piece throughout, although often modernized through Bernstein’s infectious off-kilter rhythms: gavotte, mazurka, polka (“We are Women”), schottische (“Bon Voyage”), tango (“I am Easily Assimilated”)—sometimes parodistically, sometimes not. The lovers’ duet “You were Dead, You Know,” borrows details from the bel canto conventions of Bellini, and Cunégonde’s famous waltz-aria “Glitter and Be Gay” is a first cousin to the “Jewel Song” in Gounod’s Faust.

Candide opened in New York on December 1, 1956, and played for seventy-three performances at the Martin Beck Theatre, long enough to prove in some measure respectable and to pique the interest of sophisticated music lovers, but not long enough to be considered a success by Broadway standards. The production was plagued by internecine squabbles and finger-pointing, and nobody involved seemed grief-stricken when it closed.

Thus began the saga of the work that gave Bernstein more headaches than any other. Candide was transformed considerably in the course of later emendations. Hellman did not allow her book—neither her words nor the locales she specified—to be used for the 1973 version staged by Hal Prince at the Chelsea Theatre Center, so on that occasion a new libretto, reduced to a single act from the original two, was created by Hugh Wheeler, with Stephen Sondheim joining Wilbur, La Touche, and Bernstein on the list of the show’s lyricists; unfortunately, some marvelous musical numbers needed to be omitted for this incarnation of the piece. Permutations, combinations, and revisions of either or both of those two versions charted Candide’s uncertain history, some emphasizing the score’s operatic elements, others its musical comedy streak. Bernstein was directly involved in at least seven versions of Candide, some of which differ vastly from each other. None proved definitive, although each had his blessing at least provisionally. In 1989, the composer led a concert performance in London—in a version preserved on recordings—that stands as his last sign-off on the opera that had puzzled him for thirty-three years.

It is impossible to point to any one version as the best of all possible Candides. The one we hear in this concert performance was prepared for a 1988 production by the Scottish Opera in Glasgow. It uses about 40% of all the Candide music that had accumulated in the course of the many revisions, and it is the shortest of all the versions, running at about two hours. The defining success of this version may be the balance it found in upholding the musical standards expected from a reputable opera house while being produced on the nightly schedule of a typical musical comedy, preserving a sense of intimacy (the theater being of modest size) and scaled so as to not try the patience of the audience.

The production scored a resounding success and was televised in Great Britain by the BBC, though copyright restrictions prevented it being aired elsewhere. Jonathan Miller’s direction (a collaboration with John Wells) was roundly applauded, and that Christmas, he revived the show for a short run at London’s Old Vic. The production was honored with the Olivier Award for best musical of the year.

James M. Keller

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide, published in 2011 by Oxford University Press, is also available as an e-book and an Oxford paperback. 

The Scottish Opera version of Candide is represented by a highlights recording (1988) conducted by Justin Brown, with tenor Mark Beudert, soprano Marilyn Hill Smith, baritone Nickolas Grace, and mezzo-soprano Ann Howard (TER Limited)  |  Particular pleasure is to be had from the original cast recording (Robert Rounseville, Barbara Cook, Max Adrian, Irra Petina) with Samuel Krachmalnick conducting (Columbia/CBS/Sony)  |  The New York City Opera Production (1982, New World Records) with David Eisler, Erie Mills, John Lankston, and Joyce Castle, with John Mauceri conducting  | The recording of the final version of Candide (1991, Deutsche Grammophon) may prove an acquired taste, with the composer conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (sometimes willfully) and a cast headed by Jerry Hadley, June Anderson, Adolph Green, and Christa Ludwig

Reading: Leonard Bernstein, by Humphrey Burton (Doubleday)  |  Leonard Bernstein, by Paul Myers (Phaidon)  |  Working with Bernstein, by Jack Gottlieb (Amadeus)  |  To mark on your calendar: On the Road and Off the Record with Leonard Bernstein: My Years with the Exasperating Genius, by Charlie Harmon (Imagine Publishing; scheduled for release May 8, 2018)

(January 2018)