NY City Opera makes the best of all possible cases for Bernstein’s “Candide”

Sat Jan 07, 2017 at 1:16 pm
Jay Armstrong Johnson and LInda Lavin in New York CIty Opera's production of Bernstein's "Candide." Phot: Sarah Shatz

Jay Armstrong Johnson and Linda Lavin in New York CIty Opera’s production of Bernstein’s “Candide.” Photo: Sarah Shatz

Very few people outside the company itself expected that the New York City Opera, following its precipitous fall several years ago, could return in so vital a form as it has. And yet, in the face of so much skepticism, the reconstituted NYCO has managed to put on a half-dozen productions in the past year, as well as a handful of smaller concerts.

A major part of their success owes to their commitment to works both old and new that lie far from the more familiar track beaten by their former neighbors at Lincoln Center. At the Met, you can see La Traviata, Norma, and Turandot; NYCO replies with Aleko, Fallujah, and Florencia en el Amazonas.

Operetta in particular is, as a form, an excellent fit for a flexible company at a smaller venue. Friday’s opener of Bernstein’s Candide at the Rose Theater, though wanting a little polish, was a superb entertainment, a light evening of shameless comedy and bubbling music, highlighted with several strong performances.

There’s no getting around the peculiarity of the piece–Candide, a reasonably faithful adaptation of Voltaire’s classic satire, is a bizarre road-trip farce that drags its principals from Westphalia, to Lisbon, El Dorado, Cadiz, Cartagena, and Constantinople, beset along the way by inquisitors, pirates, and marauding Bulgarians. True to its source, Candide–given here in its revised form with the book by Hugh Wheeler–provides equal-opportunity insult, variously and mercilessly lampooning Catholics, Jews, Spaniards, Turks, and many more.

Broadway veteran Gregg Edelman led a cast of singers and actors drawn mostly from the New York theater circuit, a casting strategy that led to some mixed results. For his own part, Edelman was brilliant as Voltaire and his various avatars, hamming it up in a slew of lecherous, plot-pushing gag roles, especially as the pompous and devious two-bit philosopher Dr. Pangloss. If he’d had a mustachio to twirl, he’d have twisted it off his lip by the end of the first scene.

Less successful was Jay Armstrong Johnson’s cloyingly earnest Candide, sung with an affected vibrato (and given heavier amplification than the rest of the cast) that made him sound more nervous than anything else. Keith Phares acquitted himself ably in the relatively thankless role of Maximilian, the jealous brother of Candide’s beloved Cunegonde.

Cunegonde, meanwhile, was by far the standout vocal performance of the night, portrayed to doe-eyed perfection by Meghan Picerno. Along with Phares, Picerno is one of only two principals in this cast to come primarily from an opera background, and the security of her technique pays off. Her dazzlingly demanding aria “Glitter and Be Gay” was a tour de force, showing off a direct, beaming coloratura soprano, a firm and bristling chest voice, and superb musical instincts. One half-registered high note aside, she traipsed easily through Bernstein’s torturous writing, still managing to find all the humor of the character along the way.

Rounding out the cast are a number of reliable character actors whose roles give the work its essential color. If Chip Zien felt any misgivings about playing a caricatured Portuguese Jew, he didn’t show them, buzzing about the stage and earning steadily more laughter as the audience grew comfortable appreciating his outlandish portrayal. His foil as the bulbous, pompous, riotous Grand Inquisitor was Brooks Ashmanskas, who later doubled as a blustering Pasha. Linda Lavin seemed to have brought her own cheering section, earning consistent laughs for her turn as the bedraggled, worldy-wise, one-buttocked Old Lady, particularly in her comic tango, as she tried to seduce a throng of elderly Spanish men.

As much a ham as any character in the operetta is the score itself, led with flair from the pit by Charles Prince. The NYCO orchestra, still coming together, showed a little unsteadiness at times, and the overture could have stood a bit more zest. On the whole, though, these players gave a colorful account of the music, throwing themselves with abandon into its playful spirit.

The cast aside, the major triumph here for NYCO is scoring Broadway legend Harold Prince to direct a brand-new production. Prince’s vision of the piece plays up its raunchy, irreverent humor to vaudevillean levels, giving the whole a rustic, back-of-the-wagon aesthetic complete with painted flats and pantomime horses. Much of the choreography assigned to the company is fairly rudimentary, but the Cartagena scene offers a hysterical waltz sequence, featuring disturbingly agile “dancers” silhouetted behind the actors.

Prince manages to give a lavish feel while working on a budget, and does so by creating atmosphere more than pure spectacle. His production attacks the outrageous silliness of the operetta without apology, overselling every joke and treating each as though it were the punchline of the entire piece–which is just about right. With a work this batty, there’s no point in going half-way.

Candide runs through January 15 at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater. nycopera.com

2 Responses to “NY City Opera makes the best of all possible cases for Bernstein’s “Candide””

  1. Posted Jan 08, 2017 at 4:13 pm by Ron Odrich

    The orchestra, so buried in that pit, with some of New York’s finest musicians can hardly be heard adequately, let alone “still be coming together” or demonstrate “unsteadiness”. As to lacking more “zest” how is that done with a total lack of volume or presence from the quasi-interred orchestra? No doubt Candide’s mike was too hot which made his attempts at ending his phrases at a controllable ppp very difficult.
    Otherwise, Mrs. Lincoln, I enjoyed the show very much. Not so much the review.

  2. Posted Jan 16, 2017 at 12:42 pm by Saul Davis Zlatkovski

    I am fortunate in having seen a few productions of Candide, the memorable production by Wesley Balk at Minnesota Opera which I believe used the Chelsea Theater Center script and score, the revised Prince production at City Opera, and another at the Guthrie Theater. The best one, by far, was the Minnesota Opera production, which preserved elements of Lillian Hellman’s script, and had a sense of high satire about it, rather than the much lower comedy of Prince and the cartoon/comic book production at the Guthrie.

    The orchestra is all-important as Bernstein’s music is riveting, though his revisions also made it less effective, with as I recall, the male voices mostly being tenors, eliminating important contrasts between keys and voices in duets. This should be a sophisticated, literary show, not a showcase of low comedy. It is unfortunate that it’s classiness has been lost. Prince needs to re-evaluate his approach.

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