Candide | Painting: Jason Yeomans

The excitement here at the Festival continues to build as opening night inches closer! Throughout the spring, Rob’s Ramblings have given a behind-the-scenes look into our productions. This month, Rob dives into Candide — the inspiration, the witty writers, and brilliant composer. If you don’t have time to read the full blog now, click here to watch some videos that offer insight into Bernstein’s musical journey. Or, click here to listen to Rob’s Candide-inspired playlist!

Big Questions

“Any questions?” asks Dr. Pangloss at the very end of Bernstein’s Candide, just before the curtain falls. Well, yes—tons of them.

Candide is one big question—both Voltaire’s novel and the show we’re performing this summer pose far more than they ever answer. But what great questions they ask! “What’s the use?,” “Nothing more than this?,” or the eternal, “Is Candide a musical or an operetta?” (My take: it’s both.)

Candide’s journey is familiar to all of us. It’s a search for meaning: meaning in the sometimes inexplicably harsh vicissitudes of life, meaning in our relationships, friendships, and loves (often so beyond our control), meaning in the simple pleasures of existence.

Pastel by Maurice Quentin de La Tour of Voltaire, 1735

Voltaire, Ahead of his time

Voltaire’s great satire, first published in 1759, is still as racy a read as ever (if you’ve not yet had the pleasure, the full text is available here). In less than a hundred pages he whisks us around the globe, with pitstops in a bewildering itinerary of locations, both real and imagined. He lampoons politics, religion, philosophies, morals, armies, governments—all of society—and he does so with a breathless pace and surprising frankness. Nowhere and no one is safe from Voltaire’s laser-sharp wit and white-hot sense of irony, and he seems to take sheer delight in systematically dismantling his main targets (the philosophies of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Alexander Pope).

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” – Voltaire

He was one of the greatest minds in history, a champion of freedom, of justice, of equality, of emancipation, of reason – a thinker far ahead of his time, preparing the way for revolutions and social changes staggering in their implications and effects.

a recollection

A formative part of my childhood was Sir Kenneth Clarke’s fascinating TV series Civilisation (yes, we Brits spell it with an ‘s’…) The tenth episode “The Smile of Reason” is a great way to remind yourself of Voltaire’s place in Western history. 

[The groundbreaking original series, filmed in 1969, recently received a more balanced, global update in Simon Schama, Mary Beard, and David Olusoga’s Civilisations, also very worth your time if you enjoy art history.]

But goodness, the book is harsh, even when it’s laugh-out-loud funny. Voltaire’s characters are pawns, helplessly pushed around his fierce imagination from misadventure to calamity to disaster with nary a respite. He makes his case not just with a fine point, but with a guillotine. Poor Leibniz and his “Best of all Possible Worlds” never stand a chance.  

Such a scathing attack is tough to bring off on stage – theater likes ambiguity, balance, ‘chiaroscuro.’ Take those characters – they’re barely given the chance to be more than marionettes. If anyone was going to turn this into a piece of theater, it had to be someone with real heart—someone who could at least empathize with the relentless tribulations Voltaire drags his characters through. Yet it also needed someone who cared intensely about the social issues at the novella’s core, just as relevant in 1956 – and today – as they were in pre-revolutionary France. And who could possibly capture all those different locations, religions, and characters musically? 

Cue Lenny! Bernstein was to American post-war classical music what Voltaire was to radical European social thought in the eighteenth century – a galvanizing force whose influence far exceeded his chosen medium. A passionate humanitarian and advocate for civil rights like Voltaire, he was also a supernaturally gifted artist. Wearing his emotions visibly on the podium in larger-than-life gestures all his own, the size of that heart was never in question. What’s more, he had the mercurial ability to turn his compositional hand to any musical style he chose. He was tailor-made for this herculean task.

Bernstein’s musical love letter

The genius of his score lies in its musical satire. Just like Voltaire poked fun at every facet of society, this score is Bernstein’s tongue-in-cheek love letter to European operetta. He fills the score with every type of musical pastiche – gavottes, polkas, waltzes, tangos, hornpipes, ballades, serenades, coloratura arias, cadenzas, patter songs, Vaudeville, duets, trios, quartets, quintets, counterpoint, chorales, hints of Stravinsky, Strauss, Mahler, Ravel – yet the whole piece is somehow unmistakable Lenny. 

Here’s the inimitable Maria Callas as Violetta at the end of Act I of Verdi’s La traviata. Listen to those scales, roulades, and that high Eb at the end.

Now listen to Cunegonde’s famously virtuosic showstopper, “Glitter and be Gay”, sung by the delightful Sumi Jo – and hear those same scales and Ebs at the end.

Try this Paris Waltz from Candide

And then compare with this snippet of Richard Strauss’s Waltzes from Der Rosenkavalier.

What about these two sound worlds? The end of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony.

And the great chorus at the end of Candide, “Make our Garden Grow” – that same full-throated chorus, that blaring brass…

Perhaps less obvious, but related are the Old Lady’s hysterically funny aria “I am Easily Assimilated” (here with the legendary Christa Ludwig)

And Carmen’s Habanera, sung here by the sublime American mezzo Grace Bumbry, who left us just a month ago at the age of 86. 

Grace Bumbry and Denyce Graves backstage at the Kennedy Center Honors│ Photo by Rob Ainsley

Not only are these two arias in the same key, but they share those infectious Latin rhythms. Particularly telling are the descending chromatics in the chorus of the Bernstein – just like the Habanera. What’s more, Bernstein seems to be having a little fun at Bizet’s expense: his Old Lady is ‘assimilating’ to Spanish culture just as Bizet was hijacking Spanish style in the music of Carmen

The whole score is full of these clever musical homages and references, some more oblique than others. You don’t have to get all of them, but what’s undeniable is how rapidly the music and the orchestration evoke each new location on our dizzying world tour. Candide is a piece that keeps on giving – every time you see it, you catch something new (and if you went to Maestro’s talk last week, you know he recommended a minimum of four visits this season…)

Broadway star bradley dean

While our whole cast is unmissably fabulous, a very exciting more recent addition to our line-up is the Broadway star Bradley Dean, making his Glimmerglass debut this season. He plays our “EmCee” for the evening, Dr. Pangloss (Dr. “All Tongues”), and Voltaire himself. Brad’s storied career includes having performed opposite Bernadette Peters in A Little Night Music, as well as in Spamalot, Phantom, Evita, Dear Evan Hansen, Doctor Zhivago, Company, Man of La Mancha, and more. We’re so happy to welcome him to the Alice Busch theater this summer!

a bumpy road

The road to success for Candide was as torturous as its characters’ journeys. The first libretto by Lillian Hellman, a dark and in places thinly veiled criticism of McCarthyism and the “Washington Witch Trials”, had to be censured before its Broadway opening and was ultimately a flop. You can feel Bernstein’s disappointment in his intro to this sparkling footage of the beloved overture, now one of the concert hall’s most frequently performed showpieces.

Many more versions succeeded it, with contributions by Stephen Sondheim, John LaTouche, Dorothy Parker, Richard Wilbur, Hugh Wheeler, Bernstein himself, and even his wife. To this day, there is no ‘definitive’ version of Candide – Francesca’s sparkling, fast-paced version is itself an amalgam of several others. Candide took some three decades to fully establish itself in the repertoire, eventually becoming the 11th most performed opera of 2018, back in the Bernstein centennial year. 

Despite some teething troubles, the quality and originality of the music were crystal clear from the beginning, as witty and brilliant as anything Bernstein ever composed. What remains so vital about the work today is the mirror it shines on some of the issues we still face as a society, as resonant today as they were for Voltaire in 1759 and Bernstein in 1956. Yes, it’s a wildly entertaining romp full of toe-tapping tunes and big dance numbers, but there’s more to it than that – Candide asks some of the most important, universal questions, but leaves us to seek the answers for ourselves. Just like life!

rob’s playlist

Click here to listen!

Maria Callas, Christa Ludwig, Sumi Jo, Grace Bumbry, and more are featured in this playlist that encompasses the language, emotion, and performances of the classic opera, Candide.

3 Thoughts on “Rob's Ramblings - A Search for Meaning”

View Comments
  1. Bravo Direttore!

    Well worth reading – and listening. Thank you for illuminating further this delightful show and putting it on again. Wherever it falls in the musical classifications, my recommendation to anyone who will listen is: Never miss a chance to see or hear Candide.

  2. Why isn’t Rob’s Ramblings being distributed to donors as Francisco’s Traveling i-Pad was? Or if it is, how do I get on the list?

  3. Loved it! Thanks. My life too. Marquis, Grand Inquisitor, Mahler 2nd, Carmen. All such great moments and music. What a world we have here at Glimmerglass. Thanks, again.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.