Opera / Theater

Bernstein’s Candide at the Berkshire Theatre Festival, starring Julian Whitley

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McCaela Donovan and Julian Whitley in Candide
McCaela Donovan and Julian Whitley in Candide

Berkshire Theatre Festival, July 11 – August 15

Music by Leonard Bernstein
Book adapted from Voltaire by Hugh Wheeler, Lyrics by Richard Wilbur
Additional lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and John LaTouche

Directed by Ralph Petillo
Musical Director, Matthew Stern
Erin E. Kiernan, Scenic Designer
Jessica Risser-Milne, Costume Designer
Jaime Davidson, Lighting Designer
Janie Bullard; Sound Designer

Julian Whitley – Candide
McCaela Donovan – Cunégonde
Ben Rosenblatt – Dr. Pangloss
Kyle Schaefer – Maximilian
Matt Stern – The Governor
Becky Webber – Paquett
Julia Broder – The Old Woman
Michael Brahce – Man No. 1
Robert McFadyen – Man No. 2
Samantha Richert – Woman No. 1

The story of the creation of Candide is a fascinating but hardly edifying one, considering the result: a series of miscellaneous libretti and various combinations of musical numbers, none of which are really satisfactory. Nonetheless, it is hard not to become engaged in its rag-tag series of satirical scenes adapted from Voltaire’s classic novella, and it is even harder not to fall in love with the music, which is stage Bernstein at his best. A cult has grown up around it, and Bernstein himself was especially fond of the score, returning to it several times, including at the very end of his life, when he conducted a concert version at the Barbican, which was videotaped and recorded.

It all began in 1953 with Lillian Hellman’s idea to make a political satire out of Voltaire’s Candide, ou l’Optimisme in the form of a musical entertainment, perhaps something like Weill or Blitzstein, who was in fact present on Martha’s Vineyard, when Hellman and Bernstein set to work. Her aim, shared by Bernstein, was to excoriate the optimistic complacency of Eisenhower America, in which middle-class white Americans could imagine themselves living in the best of possible worlds, while abominations like the McCarthy hearings could exist. Hellman had taken a particularly strong line on these, refusing to give names to HUAC. Bernstein was enthusiastic as well, but as soon as his sophisticated musical imagination began to operate, their collegial rapport deteriorate. A richer intertextual palette arose in his mind, ranging from lyric opera, Offenbach, and G&S to the Broadway musical. The author of The Little Foxes was out of her element in this sort of project, and Bernstein’s ambitions raced ahead of his experience. Various poets were brought in to write the lyrics, but none lasted, until they found Richard Wilbur, whose translation of Molière’s Le Misanthrope had recently attracted much attention. The result was a 3 1/2 hour evening of a variety of musical genres, surely puzzling to the average Broadway audience of 1956. The political message was cast overboard even before the Boston try-outs, and cuts were feverishly made. It has been that once it arrived on Broadway, Candide was so heavily cut that it was difficult to follow—all this from a 90-page novella. There were other problems as well—so many, that speculation on just what went wrong is a favorite topic among Bernsteinians—and the show closed after 73 performances. Candide was not an entire flop by any means. It garnered a rave review from Brooks Atkinson in the New York Times, and attendance picked up after a closing date was announced. Still, with the rift between Hellman and the enthusiastic but diffuse Bernstein, it is clear that the venture suffered from the lack of a strong guiding hand.

Bernstein’s sophisticated cocktail of genres and purposes confused the Broadway audiences. Seventeen years later, in 1973, Harold Prince revived the show in what has been called a “pocket version” at the Chelsea Theatre in New York. This moved on to Broadway, where it ran for two years. In this radically shortened version, which was based on a new libretto by Hugh Wheeler (Hellman had refused permission to use her original.), Prince turned Candide into the sort of high-spirited, bawdy burlesque that was popular at the time. Political satire all but disappeared in favor of a romance that was more bitter than sweet. John Mauceri conducted a re-orchestrated score for a small group of players. Bernstein also set to work on an “opera house version” of Candide. In 1988 Scottish National Opera, also under the direction of Mauceri, produced a version that was acclaimed as the first to do the work justice. Bernstein’s 1989 Barbican performance was based on that. What we saw at the Berkshire Theatre Festival was Harold Prince’s show with a few additions from earlier versions and a few subtractions as well.

If only a small part of Hellman and Bernstein’s agenda survives in this adaptation, director Ralph Petillo, his creative team, and his cast made a most enjoyable success of it with the spare means they had at hand in the Unicorn Theatre. This simplicity and cabaret-like intimacy of the space did nothing but good for the production, in which everything was focused on youth, the youth of the principle characters (at least at the beginning), Candide’s naiveté, and the youth of the cast. It was all played out on a climbing structure, designed by Erin Kiernan, which was painted in Hockneyish primary colors. Costumes were simple. The ships which carry the principles to and from South America were cut-outs, straight from a school play. Weapons and other heavy objects, like a man-sized cross, are made of soft plastic. The golden sheep Candide brings from Eldorado are subsumed into light, soft bags full of money, which at least suggest the originals. Almost everything is much softer than it should be, and that becomes part of the joke. And the joke worked. The audience rolled with laughter, I along with the rest.

The musical component of the entertainment was also a success. The score was neatly delivered on two grand pianos stowed discreetly below the climbing structure. Music director Matt Stern played with style, elegance, and a proper sense of dynamics. There was no banging out of the tunes. The chorus sang with spirit and strong ensemble . In the original production most of the cast were Broadway singers, but Bernstein, in his final performances, used mostly opera singers, and distinguished ones at that. The Berkshire Theatre Festival wisely employed at least one classical singer, an impressive young baritone, Julian Whitley, who has recently been active with the Tri-Cities Opera, a respected opera company founded fifty years ago in Binghamton, New York. Mr. Whitley, who sang Candide, has the gift of a handsome baritone voice, which is particularly attractive in its lower registers. He deserves double points for bravery in taking on such an infernally high role, one which is usually sung by a high lyric baritone or even a tenor. Hence he was often compelled to make use of his head voice, which was in itself attractive, and only once did I detect any sign of strain or trouble. He was also entirely engaged in his part, persuasive and charming, whether he was expressing clueless naiveté or puzzled disappointment.

The rest of the cast were more singing actors or musical comedy singers. Julia Broder was a vivacious, energetic, and amusing Old Lady, a very youthful Old Lady, but that was entirely in the spirit of the production. Ben Rosenblatt provided plenty of professorial mugging as Dr. Pangloss, and it was often funny, even very funny. McCaela Donovan was a very pretty Cunégonde, and she sang quite pleasantly, even executing her coloratura outbursts with aplomb. All the rest, including the members of the apprentice company, sang, danced, and acted with professionalism and commitment. Any hints of amateurism or of a school production were deliberate.

Unfortunately this is one more occasion for me to take up my mantram against amplication. Should it really be necessary in such a small theatre?

Ralph Petillo and his cast have achieved one of the most entertaining shows of the season, and Julian Whitley is most definitely a young singer to watch.

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