Bernstein Candide

Author: 
Richard Osborne

Bernstein Candide

  • Candide

It was an Original Cast highlights LP that first turned Candide into a cult musical after what was only modest success for the show on Broadway in the winter of 1956–7. Now—after what seems like an eternity of revivals and revisions—Candide once again seems destined to find a true resting-place, not in the theatre, but on record, with the composer himself directing the salvage team as they dive for musical gold in this wonderful old shipwreck of a show.
The trouble with Candide as a theatre piece can be traced back to the fact that Bernstein (like many show-biz folk) was a sucker for politics. Tom Wolfe dubbed these political dabblings ''radical chic'' after the Bernsteins notoriously hosted a 'meeting' for members of the Black Panther group in their New York apartment in January 1970. That was primarily a publicity fiasco for Bernstein. Candide, more seriously, was always something of an artistic fiasco, with Bernstein once again suffering, not for his own misdeeds or miscalculations (the score is brilliantly inventive and finely composed) but by association with the political axe-grinding of his friends.
Voltaire's Candide is a hair-raisingly vicious prestissimo revel at the expense of the apparent fatuousness of some of the eighteenth-century's more optimistic philosophies. In its time and place it was, undoubtedly, the best of all possible books. It might even have become the book for the best of all possible musicals. But despite the brilliance of the Auto-da-fe scene, it was hardly the medium for a satire on anti-Communist witch-hunts in America in the early 1950s. (Senator McCarthy and his friends had already been effectively impaled by Arthur Miller's The Crucible in 1953.) Nor was a satire on optimism exactly the ticket in a still chronically anxious age—least of all, with music by Bernstein whose personal and artistic orientation was always itself yearningly optimistic. (The end of Candide, for instance, is a clear descendant of the soaring ''Aufersteh'n'' that concludes Mahler's Resurrection Symphony.) Tyrone Guthrie, who produced the original Broadway show, summed it all up in a much-quoted remark when he likened Bernstein's music and Lillian Hellman's book to Rossini and Cole Porter rearranging Gotterdammerung.
Generous to a fault, Bernstein was still prepared to defend Hellman's original (and long abandoned) work on Candide in an improvized speech, delivered mid-performance during the Barbican concert that preceded the Abbey Road studio sessions in December 1989. You can hear the defence on Humphrey Burton's film (soon to be released by DG on VHS cassette and Laserdisc) of that concert: a slightly shambolic flu-ridden house-party of a performance that further reinforces one's sense of Candide as a kind of comic oratorio.
Because the music has always been the thing with Candide, the drama nugatory, highlights discs have served the piece rather well. First, there was the original cast recording, with Robert Rounseville, Barbara Cook and Max Adrian (now available on a CBS Masterworks CD). This is a stylish and sparky performance with the authentic feel of Broadway about it still. Then there is TER's selection of highlights from Scottish Opera's 1988 revival and revision, with Nickolas Grace as a Pangloss in the Adrian tradition, Marilyn Hill Smith as rather a good Cunegonde, and Justin Brown (Mauceri's deputy, and then Bernstein's for the DG sessions) conducting with a lightness that outflanks Mauceri's leaden efforts and often complements Bernstein's own weight and grandiloquence.
With New World's complete recording, directed by Mauceri, we enter a real minefield. When Hellman's book was finally abandoned in 1973 and replaced with one by Hugh Wheeler for Hal Prince's Chelsea Theater production in Brooklyn, there was a good deal of tut-tutting in critical circles. And there was even sterner disapproval in 1982 when Mauceri and the New York City Opera came out with their two-act opera-house version of the Wheeler edition. There were those, Andrew Porter tells us in his DG booklet essay, who deplored the reduction of this ''moving, spirited operetta awaiting rediscovery, to a frivolous romp''. In fact, Porter himself had led the charge. Having declared that the City Opera Candide deserved no further currency, he subsequently deplored New World's temerity in issuing their recording of the production.
Certainly, the losses and changes were grievous and though Bernstein himself keeps faith with a good deal of what happened in 1973/82 there is no doubt that the New World set is now dead in the water. (Though not Mauceri's work—as Bernstein concedes in his interview with Edward Seckerson on page 38, ''He knows more about this piece than I do!'') Among other things, the New World set is 20 minutes shorter than Bernstein's ''Final Revised Version, 1989''. It omits such things as the all Bernstein number ''Words, Words, Words'' and, even more crucially, Bernstein's great ''Puccini'' aria for Candide in Act 2 ''Nothing More Than This''. Bernstein retains one of the numbers for which Stephen Sondheim provided new lyrics in 1973, ''Life is Happiness Indeed'' (Quartet, Act 1, with distinguished contributions from the American Kurt Ollmann and Della Jones), but other Sondheim revisions are junked. ''Candide's Lament'' now has La Touche's original words, and we get back the exquisite ''Ballad of Eldorado'', an original Hellman number, where Sondheim had later been asked to write a ''Sheep Song'' better suited to Into The Woods than Candide. The ''Ballad of Eldorado'', with its purling Bach flutes and Arcadian mood, is here limpidly realized by Bernstein and the LSO, with Jerry Hadley every bit as persuasive as the wonderful Robert Rounseville (Stravinsky's first Rakewell and Beecham's Hoffmann) on the original cast recording. The new edition also spares us a special New York horror where the Governor ends up singing ''My Love'' to Maximilian in drag. Here we have the Governor (Gedda tolerably comprehensible as the foreign blackguard) and Cunegonde; though I still prefer the original trio version on CBS with William Olvis, Barbara Cook and Irra Petina as a matchless Old Lady.
Even if the New World set was editorially acceptable, it would still be ruled out on account of the astonishing blandness of most of the singing and the playing. The DG set is not without its problems, but blandness is not one of them. Jerry Hadley is, throughout, an affecting and eloquent Candide. I prefer Rounseville's mellifluously confiding performance of ''It Must Be So'', but that is because with Hadley the number is all but ruined by an old Bernstein failing: a fondness for tempos that are slow to the point of complete stasis.
People brought up on the original cast recording (I'm not one of them) think Barbara Cook's Cunegonde ''definitive''. She's wonderful as this demure and glitzy tart whose career in Candide takes her progressively past her sell-by date and no one does the patter in ''Glitter and Be Gay'' better than Cook. But the coloratura of June Anderson, Bernstein's Cunegonde, is incomparable (without it ''Glitter and Be Gay'' is a lot less funny than it should be) and she makes a decent fist of the rest of the characterization. ''Oh, Happy We'' is a great success, with Anderson and Hadley making Wilbur's lyrics (their evolution fascinatingly documented in Porter's essay) crystal clear. Words are sometimes a problem with Nicolai Gedda and Christa Ludwig, though Ludwig's diction is legendary and her English is pretty good, albeit with a faint and obviously deliberate touch of exoticism about it. Bernstein supports her superbly, the conducting stylishly pointed in ''What's The Use'', all snake-hipped sleaze in the tango ''I Am Easily Assimilated''. I wouldn't prefer Adolph Green's Pangloss to either of his rivals on the highlights discs but he is a characterful performer and bit of history in his own right—a friend of Bernstein's way back to 1937 when Green played the Pirate King in one of Lennie's famous G&S shows. The syphilis song ''Dear Boy'' doesn't wear well; all that ironic nastiness about ''love's divine disease'' has been rather overtaken by events. I also tend to find the lyrics used by Max Adrian for ''The Best of All Possible Worlds'' rather funnier than those given to all the later Panglosses.
Bernstein conducts the score with power and zest, drawing on the LSO's full symphonic resources. If this, in Guthrie's phrase, is Rossinian, it is the Rossini of a big semiseria piece like La gazza ladra rather than the decorous pleasantries of earlier frolics. Bernstein's debt to Mahler is evident in the way he supports and shapes the vocal line in Candide's lament, in the scoring of the ''Battle Music'', and in the feverish, bitter-sweet strains of the ''Paris Waltz''. And with Bernstein at the helm, no one is going to miss the eight-second gibe at Der Rosenkavalier at the end of ''You Were Dead, You Know''. This great spoof duet falls entirely flat in Mauceri's New York set, with dull conducting, emasculated diction (''Holland, Portu.../ Ah, what torture''), and dim singing in the great canoodling cadenza. With Bernstein, Hadley and Anderson it is all glorious, even if it seems that it is Ivor Novello who is being sent up rather than Strauss or Puccini.
In the concert hall, the actors spoke John Wells's revised narration; on record the narrative links are reduced to italicized entries in the printed libretto. It's like Die Zauberflote without the spoken dialogue, and it works well enough, even if we miss the occasional telling piece of melodrama—Candide speaking over the instrumental ''Introduction to Eldorado'', for example.
The recording will knock you out of your seat at the start of the Overture but is remiss in balancing the chorus far too distantly. The Sullivanesque ''Bon Voyage'' is a case in point, with Gedda gawkily indistinct alongside, say, TER's English-born Bonaventura Bottone. The chorus balance is also a minor blight on Bernstein's realization of the great parody of the McCarthyite trials ''What a day, what a day / For an auto-da-fe'' (omitted on both highlights discs). But the riproaring exuberance of Bernstein's conducting soon wipes away any misgivings, and the inquisition itself is powerfully characterized with the searing parody Requiem played with terrific panache.
It is good, then, that Bernstein and a host of friends and collaborators managed to sort out Candide before he died. And sort it out they did, because—rest assured—this recording gives the same kind of uncomplicated pleasure (and more of it) as did that famous old CBS highlights LP all those years ago. Certainly, this is as good a Candide as we are likely to get, on or off record. So it's 'case closed'. And let the great army of scholars, librettists, arrangers and producers now exit stage left and start cultivating someone else's garden.'

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