In Philadelphia, Commemorating Bernstein’s Centennial with an Exhilarating Candide

13/07/2019

United StatesUnited States Bernstein, Candide: Soloists, Philadelphia Symphonic Choir (director: Joe Miller), Philadelphia Orchestra / Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 22.6.2019. (BJ)

Yannick Nézet-Séguin (left) and the cast of Candide

Production:

Stage director – Kevin Newbury
Music supervisor – Leslie Stifelman
Choreographer – Melissa Rae Mahon
Stage design – Andrew Boyce
Lighting design – Christopher Frey
Costume design – Paul Carey
Video and projection design – S. Katy Tucker
Hair and make-up design – Anne Ford-Coates
Sound design – Rick Jacobsohn

Cast (included):

Bradley Cooper and Carey Mulligan – Narrators
Alek Shrader – Candide
Erin Morley – Cunégonde
Denyce Graves – The Old Lady
Kevin Vortmann – Dr Pangloss/Beggar/Sage
William Burden – Governor/Vanderdendur

If the scenic aspect of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Candide production fell short of matching the evening’s musical splendor, it was not for want of trying. Kevin Newbury’s ‘put-everything-but-the-kitchen-sink-on-stage’ approach worked very well when he directed Bernstein’s MASS for the orchestra four years ago, because it suited the all-embracing conception of the work, which suggests parallels with Mahler’s notion that a symphony must contain the whole world. In Candide, however, the composer and his writers were working in a very different vein, still universal but more narrowly focused, and I felt that setting it in the explicit context of a 1980s or 1990s American high school, rather than illuminating the work, instead obscured and drew attention away from Bernstein’s — and Voltaire’s — complex message.

Andrew Boyce’s stage design, for one thing, full of such items as student lockers that were constantly being repositioned, seemed unconnected with what the characters were doing and singing about. Admittedly it gave Newbury the chance to indulge in one of the most drearily familiar of contemporary directorial clichés — having cast members stand on seats. But I must not be snide, no matter how much that trick annoys me: for the most part, Newbury deployed his numerous cast with unobtrusive skill, and their activities, while not in the least Voltairean, were always lucidly set forth.

Among the nearly twenty members of that cast there were no weaknesses. Having not a great deal to do, both of the two narrators did it well, if more clearly in the case of Bradley Cooper (around whom much of the advance publicity was centered) than of Carey Mulligan. There was a sprinkling of highly talented company regulars, including that splendid tenor William Burden, who doubled in the roles of the Governor and Vandendur — the latter, depending on whether the angle of view be Voltaire’s or the production’s, being either a cruel slave-owner or a merely sleazy fitness instructor, who indulges in a distinctly contemporary piece of sexual harassment. The other standouts included Alek Shrader, suitably gentle and introspective in the title role; Erin Morley, as an alternately seductive and mercenary Cunégonde; Kevin Vortmann, who caught the hapless over-optimism of Dr Pangloss unerringly; and Denyce Graves, whose vocal polish, insinuating characterization, and physical exuberance made The Old Lady the unmistakable star of the show.

From a musical viewpoint, as I hinted at the start of these comments, nothing, under Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s vividly involved direction, could have gone more beautifully or more excitingly. The orchestra, seated behind the singers on stage, played with exhilarating brilliance and unfailing clarity of texture, and the quieter, more poetic sections of the score were also fully and touchingly realized.

Bernard Jacobson

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