Leonard Bernstein would have been 92 on August 25, and next month marks the 20th anniversary of his death, which left an aching void in the classical music world that may never be filled. People may talk about Gustavo Dudamel as if he were another Bernstein, but while Gustavo may be electrifying the scene as a conductor, Lenny could do so as a conductor, pianist, lecturer, teacher, thinker, and most pertinently, as a composer. And Bernstein’s greatness as composer could be felt Thursday night when Hollywood Bowl – where Bernstein presided for a couple of memorable summers in the 1980s – presented for the first time a nearly complete concert performance of his best score for the theater, “Candide.”
The composer’s “West Side Story” may have a higher profile, but “Candide” is an even more bountiful flowering of Bernstein’s underrated melodic gift, full of satirical pokes at various European idioms and ballads that can have a surprising emotional impact. It took a long time for “Candide” to make its way; considered a flop on Broadway when it ran for 73 performances in 1956-57, it underwent one drastic revision after another until finally, in 1989, John Mauceri and Bernstein brought it to a state where the composer was just about satisfied.
What was heard on Thurs. from conductor Bramwell Tovey and the Los Angeles Philharmonic was the 1993 “concert version” – essentially the one that Bernstein conducted and recorded in 1989 with mostly minor excisions (although one hated to lose the delicious “Paris Waltz” in Act I).
In his last decade, Bernstein seemed intent upon sanctifying his Broadway creations with a classical seal of approval, and this performance, far away from the breezy zing of Broadway, reflected that viewpoint. Done this way, “Candide” felt more like a comic oratorio than a musical or an operetta.
Fortunately, this “Candide” had a vital center in British actor/singer Richard Suart, who served in a triple role – as narrator of the bizarre, swerving storyline; the mindlessly optimistic Dr. Pangloss; and his antithesis, Martin. Bernstein was a Gilbert and Sullivan fan, and incorporated much of their quick-witted style into his music for Pangloss and Martin – Suart, who happens to be an old hand at G&S, brought it out marvelously with his ironic, crystal-clear British diction.
Tenor Alek Shrader played Candide in a by-the-book fashion – young, innocent, sincere – and soprano Anna Christy was properly petulant, if to the point of shrillness, in the mock-coloratura flights of Cunegonde. The part of Old Lady has become a favorite of famous mezzo divas when they reach a certain stage in life; Frederica Von Stade clearly had lots of fun camping up the Lady’s zany “High Middle Polish” accent, and her normal operatic voice still has heft. Every singer enunciated clearly, and thus, the audience got the jokes.
Tovey’s tempos varied between quick, sometimes clipped dashes through certain numbers and some adherence to the heavy gait of Bernstein’s later years. He kept his remarks to a bare minimum at the outset, though the evening might have benefited from more witty talk from this gifted wag.