At the New York State Theater tonight for a performance Leonard Bernstein’s Candide. This production returned to the New York City Opera repertoire for fourteen performances in April after a three-year hiatus.
Candide’s journey from page to stage was famously bumpy. Bernstein himself never seemed completely satisfied with the work, which he envisioned as an American version of a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta. (It’s billed at the NYC Opera as “The Great American Opera.”) He and playwright Lillian Hellman began collaborating on the musical adaptation of Voltaire’s satirical novel in 1954, united in their indignation over the anti-Communist McCarthy hearings. The heavily revised work, which also featured contributions from poet Richard Wilbur and Hellman’s friend Dorothy Parker — opened on Broadway in 1956, and closed after an abysmal 73 performances.
When Hellman refused to work on a rewrite, additional collaborators were brought in; over the next twenty years, six writers contributed lyrics, characters were modified and redrafted, and segments of the operetta edited in and out. Distinguished director-producer Harold “Hal” Prince (West Side Story, Cabaret) revived the operetta in one form for Broadway in 1974, where it enjoyed a 740 performance run, and won that year’s Tony for Hugh Wheeler’s new book.
Yet another Prince production — known as “the opera house version” – debuted at the State Theater in 1982 with lyrics by Wilbur, and additional lyrics by Bernstein, John Latouche and Stephen Sondheim. It restored numerous sections of music that had been previously discarded, in response to requests from opera companies for a more legitimate version of Bernstein’s vision.
Audiences are often conflicted over their response to Candide, unsure of whether to approach it as a musical or as an opera. Although the score is almost universally admired — the original 1956 Broadway cast recording has something of a cult following — as a dramatic work, it loses momentum in the filler-heavy second half before settling into its final, improbably happy ending – banishments, betrayals, beatings, murders, rapes, shipwreck, plague and earthquake all forgotten. (Did I mention that it’s a comedy?)
Stage and screen star Richard Kind led the cast in the dual roles of Dr. Pangloss/Voltaire. Daniel Reichard, who created the role of Bob Gaudio in Jersey Boys on Broadway, was set to star as the ever-optimistic protagonist, but shortly before curtain it was announced that he was battling a stomach flu and would be unable to perform that night. His understudy Shonn Wiley stepped into the lead, performing with confident ease, offering not a hint that this was his debut of the role. For his efforts, Wiley received cheers and a standing ovation – the most enthusiastic reception of the night.
And let us try,
Before we die,
To make some sense of life.
We’re neither pure, nor wise, nor good
We’ll do the best we know.
— Candide, “Make Our Garden Grow”
We arrived at Lincoln Center this evening to find another phase of the Plaza renovation underway. In addition to the plywood fencing erected throughout, both the driveway and the Revson Fountain had been closed to accommodate the construction. Click here to view a short video of what the newly transformed entrance to Lincoln Center will look like when this work is completed.
Below, the banner for Satyagraha, Philip Glass’s landmark 1980 work about Mahatma Gandhi’s formative experiences in South Africa, set to text from the Bhagavad Gita. The Met premiere coincides with The Satyagraha Project, a public forum inspired by Gandhi’s philosophies of actively engaging the world’s ills through nonviolence.
Months ago, we had ordered these tickets to Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in heady anticipation of catching operatic dream team Ben Heppner and Deborah Voigt, singing together for the first time. Unfortunately, bad luck and stars’ illnesses plagued nearly the entire six-performance run of the Met revival.
To begin… Prior to opening night, Heppner, who the Times has called “the reigning Wagnerian tenor of our day,” was sidelined by an initially misdiagnosed blood-borne infection. His understudy, Canadian tenor John Mac Master, replaced him in the March 10 opener to mostly negative reviews and ill-mannered audience boos. (We disapprove!) For the second performance, Mac Master was swapped out for American Gary Lehman, who fared slightly better in his Met debut. Voigt, however, fell ill in the middle of Act II, and was replaced by Upper West Side native Janice Baird, also making her Met debut, resulting in the March 14 performance finishing out with neither of the originally billed singers in the title roles.
For our third performance on Tuesday night, Voigt was back on stage performing opposite Lehman, but the night was interrupted in the third act when an errant set piece raked the tenor into the prompter’s box. The opera was stopped while Lehman was examined by a doctor, who eventually cleared him to continue. Longtime conductor James Levine led the orchestra at our performance, and drew cheers from this New York crowd — one of the few constants in a run as unstable as a Tristan chord.
Performance #4 featured tenor #3: Robert Dean Smith in his Met debut — a Saturday matinee which was telecast in high-definition to theaters worldwide. When Heppner was finally cleared to perform the penultimate night, it was Voigt who was M.I.A. — laid low by the stomach ailment and fever that had plagued her during the second performance. (Baird, once again, stepped in as Isolde.)
And so, in an unprecedented and magnanimous move, and to celebrate the long-delayed Heppner-Voight pairing, the Met decided to stream the sixth and final Tristan und Isolde performance live on its website. Not quite the same as being there inside the opera house, but on a quiet Friday night, I’ll take it. Bravo!
Sadly, I missed the big Winter’s Eve festivities in my neighborhood last night, which kicked off with the Lincoln Center Holiday Tree Lighting. It was such fun last year, but with the holiday season officially now in full swing, there just isn’t time enough for everything.
Tonight was to be something of an event: the gala premiere of Christoph Willibald Ritter von Gluck‘s Iphigénie en Tauride. This new, much-celebrated Metropolitan Opera co-production with Seattle Opera is directed by Stephen Wadsworth (recently named the first Director of Opera Studies for the Juilliard Opera Center) and conducted by Mostly Mozart musical director Louis Langrée, in his Met debut. Americans mezzo-soprano Susan Graham and tenor Paul Groves, who opened London’s Royal Opera House season, took up the roles of Iphigénie and Pylade again tonight with the incomparable Plácido Domingo starring as Iphigénie’s brother, Oreste. (This Met production was also broadcast live on December 8.)
I knew nothing about Iphigénie en Tauride going in to the evening, though I had vague recollections of the Euripides’ drama that inspired it. Gluck’s opera premiered in Paris on May 18, 1779, but did not have its United States debut at the Met (in German) until 137 years later, on November 25, 1916. Since then it has only been staged five times, the last in 1917, so tonight was an occasion indeed.
We had planned on a special evening: the tuxes, furs and glittering jewels were out on display tonight, and how many opportunities do I get to don an evening gown, after all? Unfortunately, the lack of sleep these past couple of days finally took its toll tonight, and I ended up in the upper balcony, exhausted before curtain, and passed out in my seat by Act II. Now that’s embarrassing. No fault of the performances, though, which from what I recall were quite beautiful… and apparently very soothing.
As I slipped out during intermission, I passed Tyne Daly on the spiral staircase, whom depending on your reference point, is best remembered as Detective Mary Beth Lacey from 80’s cop show Cagney & Lacey or Maxine Gray from the 90s judicial drama Judging Amy. Did anyone else besides me have trouble distinguishing that latter show from Providence?
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