When Farce Robs Wit: Rome Opera’s Candide

ItalyItaly  Bernstein, CandideTeatro dell’ Opera, Rome, 18.1.2012 (JB)
Production originally from Teatro San Carlo, Naples
Conductor: Wayne Marshall
Stage Director: Lorenzo Mariani
Sets (after designs of Larry Rivers): Nicola Rubertelli
Costumes: Giusi Giustino
Choreography: Sean Curran

Candide: Michael Spyers
Cunegonde: Jessica Pratt
Pangloss: Martin, Cacambo  Derek Welton
The Old Lady: Jane Henschel
Governor, Vanderdendur, Ragotski: John Graham-Hall
Paquette: Elena Rossi
And with Adriana Asti as Voltaire / Narrator

The history of musical performance in twentieth century Italy would be vastly different if Francesco Siciliani had not lived. That is not usually true of an impresario. But Siciliani was not a typical impresario. There was not a performing musician of any consequence with whom he didn’t have a working relationship. He largely shaped the career of Callas and assembled legendary casts for opera performances. And his quiet, unassuming advice caused ripples all the way through international music. The advice would often be acted on but its genesis would subsequently get lost in the fast flow of musical activity. Here is a good example of what I mean.

In the early fifties he persuaded Leonard Bernstein that it would be in their mutual interests if the American composer looked into conducting bel canto opera, promising Bernstein stimulation from the experience. Moreover, he told Bernstein that that very gifted Greek girl with whom Bernstein had already worked, when Siciliani put them together in Medea  at La Scala,  would be a particular challenge in connection with this new proposal. (Some of us have never forgiven Siciliani for blowing the dust off Cherubini’s dull opera, while he was at the Maggio Musicale in Florence. The opera just about works with Callas (what doesn’t?) but with anyone else is an excruciating bore.) The new challenge was met. When Bernstein heard Callas’s Bellini it immediately brought out the composer in him. In true early nineteenth century tradition he set to work rewriting Bellini’s fioratura for this unique voice.

The opera was La Sonambula. Visconti (responsible for the stage direction) was persuaded to stop the show for Sovra il sen, let Maria step down to the footlights, bring the house lights up and enjoy the display of virtuosity which the conductor had concocted from the singer’s and Bellini’s gifts. It was March 5th, 1955 and a milestone on the operatic calendar.

Cast of Candide; photo credit: Luciano Romano

In the early fifties, Bernstein was working on the composition of Candide (premiere 29 October 1956) as well as West Side Story (premiere 26 September  1957). He couldn’t decide which way Candide ought to go – operetta?  opera?  musical? That it was closely informed by his Sonambula experience is beyond doubt. Siciliani and Bernstein were close collaborators, each to the mutual benefit of the other. But Bernstein and Voltaire were positively soul-mates. The Frenchman’s bon mots lie well with New York Jewish wit: With friends like that, who needs enemies? That could almost stand as an epitaph for Candide. Moreover, Bernstein roped in Stephen Sondheim, Lilian Hellman, Dorothy Parker and others to contribute to the original libretto.

Wit has no place in Italian. To begin with, the language has no word for it. Italians tend to think of wit as farce. In truth, the two are opposites; while farce depends on the skilled art of well-placed overstatement, wit depends on the subtle art of understatement.

Lorenzo Mariani is a highly intelligent and hugely skilled Italian theatre director and his production of Candide was first seen a few years ago at the Naples San Carlo.  The trouble is that what he delivers is farce.  Rather good farce. But for the most part it is working against the wit which Bernstein and his librettists have so thoughtfully provided. For all that, there are moments when the production works remarkably well. Setting the show in a television studio was a stroke of genius. Nicola Rubertelli’s sets would have been more striking at the San Carlo, which has a deeper stage, but they were handsome enough on the Rome stage, conveying a breezy, business-like air to no business taking place: perfect Voltaire that. What a day, what a day / For an auto-da-fe  (do I hear the hand of Dorothy Parker in that slick rhyme?) was beautifully delivered matter-of-fact like with panache. It was a relief that wit took over from farce here.

Bernstein’s Sonambula experience shows through in Cunegonde’s show stopping aria, Glitter and be gay, though here, Bernstein is stylistically closer to a combination of Offenbach with a knowingly sly Richard Strauss than to Bellini. If you hear the original cast recording, Barbara Cook makes it sound as though it had been tailor-made for her. Jessica Pratt has all the glitter too; this is a voice in which the faster and higher the music, the more comfortable it is. You might almost say that vocally she runs easily but walks with difficulty. While all her high notes sparkle and fizz, the low ones tend to disappear. So in Rome the part is not quite tailor-made.

Would Wayne Marshall have been capable of doing a rewrite for her? That is a difficult question to answer. Did anyone invite him? Probably not. In any case, the Rome Opera Orchestra have worked well with him in the past and worked well with him now. His rhythm is electric (read witty); every gesture is clear and beautifully communicated to singers and orchestra and audibly appreciated by them. And us. Some of his tempi were on the slow side for my taste, but such is Marshall’s vitality that the show never drags. And keep in mind that in this he was working against some of the heavy-handed staging ideas.

Michael Spyres as Candide gives us more bel-canto than Bernstein actually provides for  him.  His voice is pleasing enough and its being lightweight is an advantage in this role, though he does sometimes ham-fistedly underline the humour of the text – farce instead of wit once again; with farce one does indeed have to force the sense but wit has to be teased out naturally.

Derek Welton was pretty disastrous as Pangloss; very little voice and much straining to give even that little; just the opposite of what Voltaire and Bernstein require. Even worse was Jane Henschel in the wonderful part of The Old Lady. If she was singing you could have fooled me; it sounded as though she talked her way through the role, albeit with inaudible diction.

The chorus were well-projected and always precisely together, though often without the best of diction, bringing to mind W.S. Gilbert’s quip, Not a single word is ever heard when singers sing in chorus.

The performance was sung in the original English with Italian surtitles except for the part of Voltaire / Narrator which was spoken in Italian by Adriana Asti, the doyenne of Italian actresses. My heart leaped with joy at this prospect. Ms Asti is truly one of the greats of the Italian stage. But it pains me to report that she did not work in this part. She was propped up at a high desk at the front left of the stage and read her text. She made Voltaire sound boring.  Now that is an achievement, even if it is a perverse one. Even in Italian, though, some of these words were recognisably Voltaire. That philosopher always extends an invitation to his listeners to enter into the playfulness of his ideas. Not Adriana Asti. She sounded as though she couldn’t wait for the show to finish. The applause of the first night audience was tepid and brief.

Jack Buckley