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2019.09.04 17:00

‘Candide’ at Lithuanian national opera house: The garden that Bernstein grew – opinion

Polina Lyapustina 2019.09.04 17:00

A new production of Leonard Bernstein's ‘Candide’ at the Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre (LNOBT) opens in September. Polina Lyapustina describes the winding history of ‘Candide's’ production and its complex themes.

In 1990, a gala tribute to recently departed Leonard Bernstein at Carnegie Hall was about to start. The auditorium was full. Orchestra musicians gathered from all around the world: from Boston to Vienna, they came to pay respects to their maestro, mentor, and friend. They sat on a stage warming up and preparing to begin. Everyone was excited. The door to the conductor's room flew open. Rustling of pages ceased, all whispers fell silent. But no one walked through the door. After a short pause, the door closed.

“It was the moment when they realised forlornly that they'd never again see Lenny leap to life at the podium,” Mark Steyn would conclude in his article later. He would continue, “then something better happened: Lenny's music leapt to life.

“The unmistakable opening of the overture to ‘Candide’ popped like a champagne cork, and its effervescence seemed like a victory over death. For what could be more alive than that dizzying whirl?”

What else, I would add, could one expect this overture to be, tightly bound up as it is with 30 years of Bernstein's life?

Yes, it was a long and circular way, from the initial idea of the brilliant playwright Lillian Hellman that found resonance in the composer's heart in 1956, but then circled through the hands of a dozen talented writers, only to return home and explode in Bernstein's tired heart and the stage of the London Barbican Centre in 1989.

It saw many revivals in the United States, the UK, France, Germany, Russia, Italy, and Japan. And, finally, it became a hymn glorifying the life of the great composer on Bernstein's Centenary in 2018.

Major opera houses across Europe, small independent theatres and libraries in the US – everyone celebrated this date. And everyone picked their angle: composer, conductor, author, music lecturer, and pianist — Leonard Bernstein was a man of a thousand faces, all of them exceptional.

And when it came to deciding the main theme for the celebrations, all were unanimous in choosing his musical. Not the all-American favourite ‘West Side Story’, but his life-long darling, ‘Candide’.

A musical? I expect you are taken aback a little by this fact.

Musical it is. Originally conceived as a three-act opera, ‘Candide’ opened as a two-act musical in October 1956. Over the years, it turned into one of the greatest pieces by the composer, and here is why.

The story

Welcome to the world of absurdity and optimism. First published in 1759 under a thinly-disguised pseudonym, Voltaire's story has remained in print ever since and is always remembered during hard times, when irony and scepticism become relevant again.

The plot is simple. A naïve young man falls in love with a baron's daughter. He’s poor, she’s rich, and her family makes sure that they never be together.

Shepherding the young characters is a ‘wise’ man — Pangloss is a teacher and philosopher who believes in optimism and tutors Candide to believe that no matter what happens, we all live in “the best of all possible worlds”.

They will part and reunite, they will die and they will kill (accidentally). Characters we thought were killed will continue to pop up at the most unexpected times and places.

Candide:
Dearest, how can this be so? You were dead, you know. You were shot and bayonetted, too.
Cunegonde:
That is very true. Oh, but love will find a way.

That is probably how it works in “the best of all possible worlds”.

But much more absurd will be the situation in the “real” world around our heroes: the church, heretics, politics, wars, simply wrong people, natural disasters will come crashing on their heads.

And the world, it will turn out, is not at all like Pangloss described. With their new understanding of life, they will sing one of the most famous songs from the show, ‘Make Our Garden Grow’. And so they will.

Relevance

In the United States, the 1950s was a time when politicians were launching initiatives against... anyone, actually. Lillian Hellman, a successful Broadway playwright, was one of those who got into trouble over suspected connections with the communists and was blacklisted by her employers.

She wrote a satiric libretto presenting Candide's story as an attack on McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities Committee.

The New York Times wrote: “When Voltaire is ironic and bland, [Hellman] is explicit and vigorous. When he makes lightning, rapier thrusts, she provides body blows. Where he is diabolical, [she] is humanitarian... the libretto... seems too serious for the verve and mocking lyricism of Leonard Bernstein's score which, without being strictly 18th century, maintains, with its gay pastiche of past styles and forms, a period quality.”

And that's quite true. The original libretto took up too many topics to be raised discussed in relation to the source material, but much was cut from the show to keep the production witty and plot-driven.

Amazing contributors

The following 20 years of endless reworking weren't easy for ‘Candide’, nor were the last 20 years of success.

Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim had to rewrite the entire book, with a new libretto by Richard Wilbur (based on Hellman's work which underwent crucial changes), and other lyricists included John LaTouche, Dorothy Parker, and Bernstein himself.

Obviously, more than just words were changed; over the decades, new scenes would appear and be dropped. In 1959, the production included a new duet of the Old Lady and Cunegonde.

The 1971 production in San Francisco had a new song for Pangloss; by the time the production reached the East Coast, several songs had been dropped from the score.

In 1973, Harold Prince obtained a permission to stage a one-act version of ‘Candide’ with Hugh Wheeler's 105-minute libretto and Stephen Sondheim fitted some of the songs with new lyrics. In 1982, the production in New York restored many of the cuts with different song versions from many authors, but the musical numbers were not in their original order.

The show

Many talented people contributed their work to ‘Candide’ and many smart changes had been made by 1989. But the final result was an extremely funny and absurd show, with much farce and silliness, yet an intent that was deadly serious. And this, I find, is the greatest victory of the creators.

The harder you laugh, the more you think, the deeper you suffer. This basic principle of dramaturgy works to the fullest in ‘Candide’.

You will laugh at Candide, but then he will bring tears to your eyes and a flood of sympathy a few scenes later. You will witness crowds and bright carnival queens prancing around hapless victims of an earthquake, and this is truly disturbing.

Don't expect to receive any knowledge straight from the performance, but, from all my experience of watching Candide, I can promise you three things: you will definitely sing some lines repeatedly, you will recall some scenes, and you will think, and think a lot.

The final revised version

Bernstein never lost his control of ‘Candide’. No one could make a single step without notifying him.

“It seems you need a lot of people to write the words for Candide,” Mark Steyn once remarked to the composer.

The final result was an extremely funny and absurd show, with much farce and silliness, yet an intent that was deadly serious.

“Apparently so,” Bernstein said. “But only one person to write the music – me!”

Bernstein, successful and immersed in many different projects at any given time, was repeatedly reproached for his refusal to concentrate on one thing: composing serious music, conducting, writing or research.

Nor was writing musicals considered a serious option. But he never wanted to choose or focus on one thing. He definitely preferred self-made absurdity to order established by someone else. And every time he had an opportunity, he came back to ‘Candide’.

When Bernstein started working on a new version, Hellman and Wheeler had passed, so in 1988 the composer collaborated with John Mauceri and John Wells to produce a version that expressed his ultimate vision. By that time, that was a full-blown operatic version.

After the opening at the Scottish Opera, the composer decided to revise ‘Candide’ once again — fully. Taking Mauceri’s version as the basis, he made more changes to the orchestration, changed the order of musical acts, then conducted and recorded what he called his “final revised version” with London Symphony Orchestra in 1989.

The music

And that was his, Bernstein’s, ‘Candide’. From the brightness and cleverness of the overture, to the naïve and sincere Candide's theme or the painful sarcasm of ‘Auto-da-fé’, the bittersweet ‘Glitter and be Gay’, the ironic ‘I'm So Easily Assimilated’ and the maturely optimistic ‘Make Our Garden Grow’, supported by a dozen smaller songs, this composition is Bernstein at his best.

To express the whole range of human emotions and to touch upon very problematic circumstances might be challenging, but for Bernstein that was an opportunity to make his audiences laugh and to cry simultaneously, and not to choose. Seeing all that over two and a half hours is pure joy.

This piece contains a waltz, a polka and a gavotte, which the composer conceived as a St. Valentine's card to European music, tango and jazz, even some Italian opera and American Broadway ballads. But no matter in what rhythm — 6/4, 3/2, 2/2 or 4/4 — it's always about the expressive energy of music, the reality that Bernstein conveyed in his music, and characters that he described with notes better than with words.

And the conclusion

So here they are, at the end of the story, after all their journeys, after all those musical rewritings, gathered together on the stage — in Venice. And although they try to sing the same words, the music has already changed.

Candide, once a naïve boy, now preaches a new philosophy: that optimism should mean making the best of the circumstances, not assuming that bad circumstances are good and the world is perfect as it is. He sings his new beliefs with sentiment in ‘Make Our Garden Grow’.

Art is reflective. Bernstein proved it through his own life. He may have never been as naive as his hero, but he did believe in himself and his ‘garden’ that he cultivated all his life, never paying much attention to circumstances and to what other people were saying.

The pressure on Bernstein to make choices in his career dogged him throughout his life. The better world around him seemed to know better.

But he just went on. “Too much,” they told him. So he did more. If he had ever done what they asked of him — made choices, concentrated — his other gifts, the other trees in his garden would have withered and died.

When he was 30, he told The New York Times: “It is impossible for me to make an exclusive choice among the various activities of conducting, symphonic composition, writing for the theater or playing the piano. What seems right for me at any given moment is what I must do, at the expense of pigeonholing or otherwise limiting my service to music.”

He served music. And his garden bloomed and grew. And ‘Candide’ is one of the most beautiful trees in it. A musical, an operetta. It lives on in major and small theatres in both forms. And every time, after two and a half hours on stage, after all the adventures, disasters and disappointments, the characters all stand together. The orchestration fades out and the entire cast sings a verse acapella. They will make their gardens grow, they will go on. So should we.

Facts about Candide:

Cunegonde's coloratura aria ‘Glitter and Be Gay’ contains three high E-flats (above high C), two staccato, numerous uses of high C and D-flat. This role is considered the most difficult in terms of vocal performance.

The lyrics of ‘I am Easily Assimilated’ were written by Bernstein himself. He added some personal details to this aria, such as the line “my father came from Rovno Gubernya”, which is also true of the composer.

The Old Lady part requires both considerable comic talent and flexible mezzo-soprano voice from the singer. The conductor and language coach Lochlan Brown was absolutely happy to have Jovita Vaškevičiūtė in the cast.