An Ebullient Candide Acquits Itself with Efficiency and Wit

23/01/2018

Bernstein, Candide: Soloists, San Francisco Symphony Chorus (Ragnar Bohlin (director), San Francisco Symphony / Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 18.1.2018. (HS)

Meghan Picerno (Cunegonde),
Sheri Greenawald (The Old Lady) & Ben Jones (Governor) sing ‘Quiet’ (c) Kristen Loken

Cast:

Candide — Andrew Stenson
Cunégonde — Meghan Picerno
Narrator/Dr. Pangloss — Michael Todd Simpson
Maximillian — Hadleigh Adams
Paquette — Vanessa Becerra
The Old Lady — Sheri Greenawald

After two hours of things mostly going wrong for the benighted title character (an argument against misplaced optimism if ever there were), the final five minutes of Leonard Bernstein’s operetta Candide spread a balm of modest hope. In San Francisco Symphony’s concert staging, last Wednesday in Davies Symphony Hall, the simple sincerity of ‘Make Our Garden Grow’ took on a power comparable to any culmination of misdeeds and forgiveness in all of opera. Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro and La Clemenza di Tito come to mind.

This orchestra, and this conductor, know their way around Bernstein’s music in general, and this score emerged with idiomatic precision. Make no mistake, despite all the revisions and re-revisions Candide has undergone since its 1955 Broadway debut, including several specifically for the opera house or concert hall, no one has quite figured out how to smoothly pull together the complicated and picaresque dramatic elements. This version, adapted by Hugh Wheeler in 1988 for Scottish Opera, uses 40 percent of all the music accumulated in all those revisions, and acquits itself with efficiency and wit.

The show’s magnificent set pieces drove the momentum. The skies opened up and by the time all that energy released in the finale, all was right with the world. Bernstein’s conception may not represent the ‘best of all possible worlds’ (the optimistic philosophy being skewered, and the title of the set piece that tops the show’s opening sequence) but in the end, that’s why Candide endures.

The minimal staging — no director, but a collaboration between Tilson Thomas and the cast — put the focus directly on the score. Awaiting their moments in the spotlight, the singers sat in a wide arc of chairs on an elevated platform behind the orchestra, in front of the chorus in expanded ranks behind them.

Everyone in the cast brought a wonderful ebullience, even the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, who brought vivid takes to numerous secondary characters. All sang with purity of tone and technical assurance, even if sound designer Tom Clark could have struck a better balance, so that quick verbal jokes in complex passages could be understood. (There were no projected titles.)

Tenor Andrew Stenson brought sweetness and lyrical polish to the title role, through all of the character’s tribulations. His early arietta, ‘It Must Be So’, was as tender and heartwarming as could be, and his other scenes and duets flowed effortlessly.

Bass-baritone Michael Todd Simpson did double duty, bringing a commanding presence to the narration and to Pangloss, the teacher who implants the harebrained philosophy into the young Candide in the opening scenes and, like virtually all the characters, reappears in one unlikely coincidence after another. Baritone Hadleigh Adams homed in on the fey qualities of Maximilian, the son of the wealthy lord of the castle where Candide first appears.

But top prizes go to the women. As Cunegonde, Candide’s self-absorbed first love, soprano Meghan Picerno (who sang this role with New York City Opera last year) easily navigated high-altitude coloratura writing spoofing Offenbach, Gounod, and Bellini. Her diminutive frame allowed plenty of full-body perkiness, too—a 1,000-watt bulb.

With her decades of experience on the opera stage, soprano Sheri Greenawald, who currently runs the San Francisco Opera’s young artists program, made The Old Lady into a bundle of physical and verbal contradictions.

Two highlights that went for broke and hit the mark were Picerno’s ‘Glitter and Be Gay’ and Greenawald’s ‘I Am So Easily Assimilated’. Wheeler’s version also included the seldom-heard duet ‘We Are Women’, in which Cunegonde and The Old Lady explain how their wiles can save the day. Picerno and Stenson melded voices seamlessly in their duets, especially ‘You Were Dead, You Know’ and the impetuous ‘My Love’.

Soprano Vanessa Becerra voiced Paquette, the saucy servant, with fine presence. And from the chorus, tenor Ben Jones distinguished himself as the governor who at one point entraps Cunegonde, and a Dutchmen who sells Candide a leaky boat.

Ensembles were strong throughout. The tricky rhythms of ‘The Best of All Possible Worlds’ jangled nicely and the sway of ‘What’s the Use’ captured an insouciant rhythm. ‘Auto-da-fé’ could have had more snap — some of the words were lost in a bit of a sound system muddle — but the finale rose to the occasion with a perfect combination of pace, dynamics and a steady gain in intensity, sending everyone home with, yes, a ray of hope.

Harvey Steiman

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