The celebration of the Leonard Bernstein centenary is bringing a lot of the composer-conductor’s music back into the public eye, and last weekend at Palm Beach Opera, the company tackled Candide for the second production of its current season.
Like all troubled theater works, Candide has had several iterations since its relatively unsuccessful 1956 debut, with multiple revisions of the piece in the 1970s and 1980s, ending with the 1989 version, the last one to be sanctioned by the composer before his death the following year. Palm Beach Opera presented the first staged version of the 2004 New York Philharmonic concert production, which has a revised book by the actor Lonny Price and which was subsequently recorded.
Unhappily, Price’s revisions slice out a good bit of music (“Words, Words, Words,” Pangloss’s solo, is especially missed), particularly in the second act, though it does restore “We Are Women” and the El Dorado scene, which is cut out of the 1988 Scottish Opera version. The overall result is a show that’s too talky, and loses the experimental vigor of the longer work, in which the music plays the same kind of witty games as the book.
And this mounting of Candide is reminiscent of the over-the-top way the company presented La Fille du Régiment a couple seasons ago, with fourth-wall breaking and overly earnest attempts to get the audience to laugh. Most of the performers on stage are singers rather than actors, and some of the longer stretches of dialogue were close to deadly.
But as usual with Palm Beach Opera, the company’s artistic team has found some exceptional voices, and that helped make the evening Feb. 23 more enjoyable than it might otherwise have been. As Candide, the American tenor Myles Mykkanen showed off a fine, strong voice and an appealing stage personality, believeably naïve when the stage continuity allowed him to be, and winningly sincere for the “Make Our Garden Grow” finale.
I’m surely not the only audience member who was thinking of Kristin Chenoweth when seeing Alisa Jordheim as Cunegonde; a petite blond with a big voice, she nailed all of her climactic high fifths above the tonics and showed off good training and diligent preparation in the coloratura fireworks in “Glitter and Be Gay.” She’s done a Rosina in her past, and it would be good to see her in some comic Rossini or Donizetti roles. Her voice has the right mixture of lightness and steel to pull it off.
As Voltaire/Dr. Pangloss, the soap opera and Broadway veteran Ron Raines took command of the narrative and demonstrated a pleasing and firm baritone in “Dear Boy.” The conceit of this production, which has Voltaire standing at a lectern narrating the action, and then changing wigs when he becomes Pangloss, is entirely too much like this version’s origins as a concert version and not a staged show.
What a pity to blunt the effect of Jerome Sirlin’s imaginative, wacky computer projections (originally for Portland Opera) by not fully involving Pangloss in the action, especially as strong as Raines was.
Denyce Graves, who is building up a strong series of appearances locally in her career twilight (as Herodias in Salome for Palm Beach Opera and the Nurse in Eugene Onegin for Florida Grand Opera, most recently), was an effective and funny Old Lady. She still has a prodigiously strong voice, especially in her lower registers, though the upper regions tended to be brittle. It’s a voice that commands immediate attention, and she was a capable comic actress (with a somewhat hard-to-place accent, not entirely Russian) who got the audience’s attention without the two gratuitous direct references to her in the narration.
Tobias Greenhalgh, a baritone who spent a couple years here in the Young Artists Program, didn’t get much of a chance to show how good his singing is as Maximilian. He’s mostly there for comic relief, and he was appealingly goofy and fun to watch. Kasia Borowiec, a Young Artist soprano who also didn’t get to do enough as Paquette, needs to project more in the big Kravis house to be heard better; she has a sweet, pretty voice that was on ampler aural display in last season’s Pirates of Penzance.
The three other male roles were quite impressive, and were the best demonstration of this company’s ear for strong young talent. As the long-named Governor, tenor Derrek Stark unleashed a powerful, beautiful voice with a spinto edge to it that was exciting to hear. Tenor Brian Wallin was a terrific Vanderdendur, a strong singer and an excellent comedian. And the baritone Joshua Conyers, in his few lines as the Ship Captain, offered a big, plush baritone that will be worth hearing at greater length when he gets a substantial role.
Aside from the questionable decision to incorporate the stasis of a concert version, director Jay Lesenger kept things moving and busy, to good and diverting effect. Choreographer Mara Newbery Greer helped the show look fluid and mildly zany, and provided some elegant dance steps for chorus members.
Greg Ritchey’s chorus sounded confident and well-trained, though the closing “Make Our Garden Grow” was entirely too forceful and pushed in the final bars. The orchestra, as always, was excellent, and smartly led by David Stern. It’s too bad most of the score was orchestrated by Hershey Kay rather than Bernstein (he did the overture). While Kay was an underappreciated master of the craft, there is also a 1950s-Broadway sameness to much of the sound coming out of the pit that ended up stranding audience ears in the Kingdom of the Bland.
Although this was an entertaining Candide with a cast of really good voices, it fits a new pattern at Palm Beach Opera for straight-out comedy that on the one hand is laudable, and on the other dispiriting. This production, like Fille du Régiment and to a lesser extent, Pirates, continues the company’s affection for very broad comedy in which the cast is clearly working really hard to make everyone laugh. Candide even had a brief cameo by Daniel Biaggi, Palm Beach Opera’s executive director and a comprimario tenor before making a career switch to arts administration.
Next year’s Palm Beach Opera season concludes with the Johann Strauss II operetta Die Fledermaus, one of several popular comedies in the operatic canon in which there’s plenty of room to yuk it up to the hilt. Here’s hoping the company resists the temptation to try to turn it into a vaudeville-style laff riot, and that it can keep its appetite for comedy congruent with the integrity of the works it presents.