'Candide': Opera Review

Candide - Kelsey Grammer -Production Still 1 Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Ken Howard
The best of all possible worlds remains not good enough.

Kelsey Grammer makes his L.A. Opera debut co-starring with Broadway's Christine Ebersole in Leonard Bernstein's most troubled composition.

Produced a year before Leonard Bernstein's landmark classic West Side Story, the same composer's Candide opened on Broadway in 1956 and failed miserably, despite a score that would draw diehard admirers. Lillian Hellman’s original libretto has fallen under the pen of as many as seven writers over the decades, amending some of the show’s shortcomings, but yet it limps along. Some say Bernstein’s innovative mix of styles resulted in a production that is opera, operetta and/or musical theater — but being all three, it is none of them. Even under the inventive hand of director Francesca Zambello, L.A. Opera's new production mixing trained opera singers with Broadway star Christine Ebersole and actor Kelsey Grammer, both making their opera debuts, remains stubbornly earthbound.

“The only thing I worry about is, will they still be listening, 45 minutes in? I’m barely awake. And I’m talking!” Grammer told the Los Angeles Times about playing Voltaire, the narrator. He has a point. Voltaire talks a lot. On opening night, Grammer soldiered through in his best reading voice, keeping the ridiculously peripatetic narrative moving as briskly as possible, and doubling as Pangloss in a thin baritone voice, occasionally singing into his shirt collar.

Voltaire is frequently played by non-singers (like Carroll O’Connor), while the Old Lady, played here by Ebersole, has been sung by musical-theater performers like Andrea Martin, Patti LuPone, Linda Lavin and Judy Kaye. The hodgepodge of actors is meant to reflect the play’s eclectic and innovative charm, which often comes off as a rough shifting of gears.

Like Bernstein’s opera, Voltaire’s 1759 novella defies category. Conceived as a satirical poke at German philosopher Gottfried Liebniz, who optimistically theorized that the actual world is the best of all possible worlds, Candide follows the titular hero through a long list of horrific adventures including run-ins with the Bulgarian army, the Spanish Inquisition, pirates at sea and a river trip to the golden world of El Dorado, all in search of his beloved Cunegonde, who has led a miserable life as a victim of rape and prostitution. Through it all, Candide experiences an erosion of optimism, finally concluding, “It is the madness of maintaining that everything is right when it is wrong.”

Set designer James Noone situates the action under a proscenium in an abandoned theater with empty picture frames and furniture covered in sheets, and a chair stage right where the narrator sits amid books, a classical bust and a skull on a shelf.

He joins the ensemble in the show’s opener, “The Best of All Possible Worlds,” which is followed by a charming duet, “Oh, Happy We,” sung by Candide (tenor Jack Swanson) and Cunegonde (soprano Erin Morley), a clever lyric on how much the newlyweds have in common that only reveals the opposite.

Opera fans will be relieved to dispense with the musical-theater opening number and the endless chitchat that follows to finally get to the finest voices in the show. A regional opera regular, Swanson grounds Candide in boyish charm and innocence, a warm counterweight to Morley’s Cunegonde, who steals the show with her coloratura runs like the one at the end of “Glitter and Be Gay,” her aria about the mask she wears as a working girl. (The hilarious song has been a showpiece for Barbara Cook and Kristin Chenoweth, among others.) Morley has sung in opera houses all over the world, including tackling one of opera’s most difficult roles, Olympia in The Tales of Hoffmann, in Bartlett Sher's production for the Met.

Two-time Tony winner Ebersole (42nd Street, Grey Gardens) arrives midway through the first act, bringing clever comedic timing as the Old Lady whose single remaining buttock (the other lost to cannibals) becomes a running gag. She has little trouble taking center stage as well as easily fitting in with the rest of the ensemble, harmoniously singing along through the tricky quartet that ends the first act.

Jennifer Moeller costumes the main characters in conventional 18th century outfits, but somehow leaves the chorus in their underwear, which more than covers them, but seems like an arbitrary choice. Her El Dorado sequence features gold-feathered headdresses, gold robes and skimpy outfits for the women, who appear to have wandered in from a Vegas act.

After two and a half hours and three continents, Candide fails to engage on a dramatic level. But it holds flashes of musical brilliance, starting with Bernstein’s buoyant overture, which captures the blithe optimism of the character and remains among the maestro’s finest compositions. The role of Cunegonde offers a breathtaking challenge to sopranos, and Bernstein’s choral work has gone greatly underappreciated. As for that list of illustrious writers (which includes Stephen Sondheim and Dorothy Parker), occasionally clever lyrics, as in the syphilis-inspired “Dear Boy” and the globetrotting “I Am Easily Assimilated,” attest to their pedigree.

It’s easy to see why Bernstein was attracted to Candide’s themes of blinkered idealism in the 1950s. But despite lifelong efforts (his “final revised” version premiered in 1989), this mashup before there was such a thing offers only glimmers of genius. Unfortunately, it remains the one that got away.

Venue: L.A. Opera, Los Angeles
Cast: Kelsey Grammer, Jack Swanson, Theo Hoffman, Erin Morley, Peabody Southwell, Matthew Scollin, Brian Michael Moore, Christine Ebersole, Joshua Wheeker, Taylor Raven, Eboni Adams, Andrea Beasom, Tom Berklund, Tucker Reed Breder, Tim Campbell, Katherine Henly, Amber Liekhus, Danny Lindgren, Amanda Compton LoPresti, Robert Norman, Steve Pence, Michelle Siemens
Director: Francesco Zambello
Composer: Leonard Bernstein
Libretto: Hugh Wheeler, adapted from Voltaire; new version by John Caird
Lyrics: Richard Wilbur, additional lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, John La Touche, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, Leonard Bernstein
Set designer: James Noone
Costume designer: Jennifer Moeller
Lighting designer: Mark McCullough
Sound designer: Kai Harada
Choreographer: Eric Sean Fogel
Presented by
 L.A. Opera