As part of the celebration of Leonard Bernstein's centenary, MTT led the San Francisco Symphony in a semi-staged concert performance of LB's musical comedy Candide which I attended last night. The principal singers were stationed on a raised platform behind the orchestra and in front of the chorus (who were higher still).
The first problem any production of Candide faces is which version to use. It was not a success on its first production in 1956, and has been reworked any number of times, not always very satisfactorily. This version, which was created for Scottish Opera in 1989 and approved by the composer, seems to work pretty well. It dumps the spoken book entirely in favor of quick linking plot-summary passages delivered by a narrator (who also plays Pangloss), thus leaving room to stuff in as many songs as possible in a running time of two hours (plus intermission). It's still, the program notes said, only about 40% of the music written for the show at one point or another. But it's astonishing how many truly great songs passed across the stage in the course of the evening: "Best of All Possible Worlds," "Oh Happy We", "Auto-da-fe", "Glitter and Be Gay", "I Am Easily Assimilated", "My Love", "The Kings' Barcarolle", and my favorite, "What's the Use?" In fact, the only great Candide song omitted from this version was "Dear Boy".
This version is closely related, though not identical, to the one that Marin Alsop conducted on Great Performances in 2004 (which did manage to squeeze in "Dear Boy"), and I'm just sorry to say how much better that performance was than this one's. Not in talent of the performers, but in appropriateness of style. Last night's production was approached as if Candide were a serious opera. But it's not: it's a light musical comedy. MTT led with slow and stately tempos, lacking in sprightliness. And the principals were opera singers, bringing gorgeous voices with big rounded sound - and leaving most of the lyrics unintelligible. The only good comic singing came with Meghan Picerno as Cunegonde maniacally chortling over her jewels in "Glitter and Be Gay". Picerno, who does have a hefty list of musical theater leads in her vita along with the opera roles, deserves a runner-up slot in the Kristin Chenoweth competition.
For some music, including much of the music I love best, big rounded gorgeous sound is appropriate. But it's not Candide, it's not Bernstein, who melded classical technique and sophistication with the spirit of a Broadway stage composer steeped in greasepaint in all of his music, even for the concert hall. Music is not just music: it has varied kinds of excellences, and I look for awareness and appreciation of that. Still, I enjoyed this: in the right version, it's a terrific show.