Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A Chatty Romp

Bramwell Tovey leads Candide at the Bowl

by Donna Perlmutter

Victimized by bitter circumstance? Not on a bet. Bernstein’s Candide showed up at the Hollywood Bowl in concert version, courtesy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic led by Bramwell Tovey, and a cast of remarkable singers. Yes, it was almost the best of all possible worlds.

But that doesn’t mean we didn’t run home afterwards to dig outour beloved recording of Lenny’s incandescent pastiche based on Voltairean satiric optimism – you know, the original one with Robert Rounseville, Barbara Cook and Max Adrian.

Because once you hear that delicious score with its Straussian- Mahlerized waltzes, mock-lugubrious tangos, soaringly sincere ballads and patter songs that bounce along on wildly witty lyrics -- you cannot do without another hit or two. (Foiled this time: we found the vintage vinyl-player in broken-down condition.)

Of course Lenny and his cohorts Dorothy Parker and Lillian Hellman, back in 1956, had personal inspiration enough to seize on the 18th-century philosopher’s picaresque novella -- they were listed in Red Channels, Joseph McCarthy’s despised catalog of communist suspects. Among other notables the comic opera boasted major entries by poet laureate Richard Wilbur, together with those of Stephen Sondheim and Jonathan Miller. Later revisions and permutations led to greater merriment along the way, but Bernstein’s clever hand, even in the narration and lyrics, was always there.

At the Bowl, we had a big dose of Lenny’s and John Wells’ extended narration (the 1989 edition) – long treatises told through the Voltaire stand-in, Pangloss/Martin, who mischievously maps out the characters’ worldwide tribulations. But, alas, there was much too much of this telling; it robbed the music’s forward momentum. And besides, the numbers themselves explained the narrative -- with its hilarity intact, as well as its sadness -- underscored by the whole cast’s terrific presence via big screens and mics.

Still, Tovey and the Philharmonic brought off the overture with brash vitality (although no conductor I’ve heard, including Lenny, has matched the original recording’s Sam Krachmalnick who propelled its last bars, those colliding structures, into sparkling peaks of exhilaration).
Throughout this Candide he never lost the flow – be it upbeat or ballad. For instance, when the Old Lady goes from “boredom to whoredom” and complains: “I’m homesick.” “For where?” “For anywhere but here.” there was emphasis enough for the literary/comic tone to come through. And when the lovers’ duet “Oh Happy We” divulges the pair’s absurdly parallel realities, he knew to speed up to the cadence.

The cast, and the swinging-swaying chorus, were admirably in sync. Richard Suart, the Gilbert and Sullivan veteran, was no slouch in the Pangloss/Martin department. Nor did Frederica von Stade lose a scintilla of her comic flair as the world-weary Old Lady, although she lamented “missing half of my back-side.”

In the title role Alek Shrader was that perfect combination of tenorial purity and sweetness. (Remember, he’s the guileless fool who learned the hard way that life is one long compromise.) His Cunegonde, Anna Christy, took on the gold-digger role with apt self-mockery and bravura, rising to the occasion for “Glitter and Be Gay.” She sang with agility and abandon, except for the smudged stratospheric notes, persuading us that Bernstein was positing his own answer here to Zerbinetta’s equally treacherous aria from “Ariadne auf Naxos.”

In the end there is really no way to over-praise this miraculous piece of musical theater – except to say to would-be presenters: Bring it to your stages often, trust the score (whatever version), drop most of the narration, and make your patrons radiantly happy.

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