Since New York City Opera emerged from bankruptcy a year ago, it’s been hard to know what to make of it. Is this venture truly a renaissance of the venerable company that went out of business in 2013 after 70 adventurous years? Or should the quite variable productions that have been offered over the past year be seen as the first steps of a completely reconceived City Opera?
With a new — though, as you’ll see, not entirely new — production of Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” that opened on Friday at the Rose Theater at Jazz at Lincoln Center, the company may finally have, to quote the show, “the best of all possible worlds.”
This lively and colorful staging is by the acclaimed Broadway director Harold Prince (“Cabaret,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Evita” and “The Phantom of the Opera”), who rescued this well-loved but problematic 1956 Bernstein operetta when he directed it in the 1970s. He has based this new City Opera staging on his successful 1982 production for the company, an extensive revision that came to be known as the opera house version.
To join him for this new go at the piece, Mr. Prince tapped some crucial colleagues from his City Opera staging, including the scenery designer Clarke Dunham and the costume designer Judith Dolan. The newly constructed sets and costumes are inspired by the 1982 designs; that production’s central concept (with Hugh Wheeler’s book) remains. The wondrous, sorry adventures of the earnest, good-hearted Candide are narrated by a character called Dr. Voltaire, a traveling showman, and are presented by a circuslike troupe of players, complete with acrobats.
So for longtime City Opera devotees, this “Candide” will feel like a return to a company milestone. But with Mr. Prince’s inventive, reworked staging, some tweaks and trims and other changes, not to mention a winning cast drawn from both theater and opera, this “Candide” represents an encouraging forward step for the reconstituted company.
The Broadway veteran Gregg Edelman makes an affable Dr. Voltaire, then quick-changes into Dr. Pangloss, the befuddled tutor to a quartet of students in the realm of Westphalia. His wide-eyed, vulnerable charges unquestioningly accept Pangloss’s foolish credo: that everything happens for the best in this best of all possible worlds. The bright-voiced soprano Meghan Picerno is an exuberant Cunegonde, the daughter of a Westphalian baron. The baritone Keith Phares brings a virile voice and deadpan comedic gifts to Maximilian, Cunegonde’s self-absorbed brother, who primps constantly to maintain his reputation as the handsomest young man in the realm. Jessica Tyler Wright, who has an extensive Broadway résumé, makes a suitably coquettish and compliant Paguette, the comely serving maid.
And as Candide, a bastard cousin to Cunegonde and her brother, this production is lucky to have Jay Armstrong Johnson, fresh from his turn as Chip in the acclaimed Broadway revival of Bernstein’s “On the Town.” Mr. Johnson’s sweet tenor voice and fidgety youthfulness are ideal for the role.
No production, including this one, manages completely to resolve the stylistic tensions built into “Candide,” which hovers between opera and musical theater, and strives to be satirical masque and cautionary tale. (No fewer than four lyricists are credited with contributions to the various versions, including the poet Richard Wilbur, Stephen Sondheim, John La Touche and even Bernstein.)
But Mr. Prince keeps the storytelling focused and the stage action animated, especially during some wonderfully intricate ensemble scenes. Best of all, he helps his gifted cast draw out the tale’s emotional complexities, which Bernstein’s music is so sensitive to.
In “Oh, Happy We,” the charming duet in which Candide and Cunegonde finally admit their longing for each other, the joyous couple seem utterly at cross purposes. Candide’s fantasy involves building a modest farm, with cows, chickens and, eventually, “little ones” beside them. Cunegonde imagines life on a yacht, with social whirls and ropes of pearls. Bernstein’s tender music, with its beguiling melody and undulant rhythmic pattern, smiles on them both. Mr. Johnson and Ms. Picerno sang with soaring energy yet also a touch of wonderment.
When Cunegonde’s family learns she intends to marry her bastard cousin, Candide is ruthlessly exiled. During the short, forlorn “It Must Be So” — “My world is dust now,” he sings, “and all I loved is dead” — Mr. Prince has Mr. Johnson squeeze through a row in the orchestra section, nudging the knees of startled audience members. There were some laughs, of course. Still, Mr. Johnson sang so sadly and looked so stricken that this became a moment of genuine despair.
The performance had some shaky aspects. And there were moments of poor coordination between the New York City Opera Orchestra, conducted by Charles Prince (the director’s son), and the cast, though, over all, the younger Mr. Prince found the richness in the music and reined in tempos just enough to allow some breadth in the singing.
In Cunegonde’s tour-de-force aria “Glitter and Be Gay,” Ms. Picerno handily dispatched the comically elaborate coloratura runs. The Broadway veteran Chip Zien was vibrant as usual in a range of short roles, from Maximilian’s servant to Don Issachar. The splendid actress Linda Lavin stole every scene she was in as an Old Lady with harrowing life tales to tell, including one (never quite explained) about how she lost a buttock. Mr. Edelman, the Voltaire/Pangloss, also took other roles, including, at the end, a dotty Sage, who inadvertently lets slip a valuable truth to the spiritually shaken Candide and Cunegonde: Only a life of work can bring meaning to a meaningless world.
This leads into the great final ensemble, “Make Our Garden Grow,” which came across with exceptional emotional power in this winning production, the latest gift from Harold Prince.
This article was sourced from http://khushboomagazine.com