By the 1950s, Leonard Bernstein had already established himself as a successful conductor and composer. He agreed to collaborate with famed Broadway playwright Lillian Hellman on an adaptation of Voltaire’s 1759 classic French satire, Candide. The work offered political and social commentary on the Catholic Church’s hypocrisy, which mirrored the specter of McCarthyism in 1950s America. The score to Candide ended up being a light and frothy sendup of operettas like those created by Gilbert and Sullivan, while also serving as Bernstein’s love letter to European music.
Bernstein’s Candide at LA Opera.
”We called it an operetta in 1956,” Mr. Bernstein recalled. ”It seemed the closest terminology we could find. I guess one should stick to it now, because the score has an operetta flavor with spoken dialogue. I think it would be pretentious to call it an opera. But if it’s an operetta, I still think and hope it belongs in an opera house.”
It received a cool reception at its premiere. Though it was largely considered a flop, Bernstein’s score was widely praised. ”There were many, many tries to revive it over the years — half-staged versions, oratorio performances,” Mr. Bernstein said. ”But there was not really a successful staged version until Hal Prince came along, with his idea of a brief, racy, stripped-down version.”
Hal Prince was a Broadway producer who had brought to the stage Pajama Game, Cabaret, Company, Sweeney Todd, and Bernstein’s iconic West Side Story. He decided Hellman’s book was too heavy for the upbeat and playful Bernstein score, so he commissioned Hugh Wheeler to write a new version — still based on Voltaire’s original — that reused Bernstein’s score. He reset the staging out of a traditional proscenium and transformed a Broadway house into an immersive circus experience. It’s been a hit ever since, and a favorite of both opera companies and music conservatories alike, as it showcases a wide range of voices in a truly glittering score.
One of the most iconic songs is the coloratura aria “Glitter and Be Gay,” which recalls (parodies?) the high register trills of other opera classics like the Queen of the Night aria from The Magic Flute. To get a sense of the vocal fireworks, check out this video of Kristin Chenoweth as Cunégonde as she makes herself feel better about her life in prostitution with the jewels she has surrounded herself with (it really gets going at 4:10).
The opera itself has an interesting message. Candide and his true love, Cunégonde (yes, there is a dirty joke here), face a barrage of misfortunes, while holding onto the philosophy of their mentor Dr. Pangloss: “Everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.”
I hope you can join us for our IVY Culture Night at LA Opera’s Candide on February 3, starring Fraiser’s Kelsey Grammer and Tony Award-winning Broadway star, Christine Ebersole!