The best of all possible outcomes for any opera is a strong cast and a great production for a great work.
In this context, the New York City Opera can certainly check off the box next to “success” with regards to its new “Candide.” Directed by Harold Prince, the revival of Leonard Bernstein’s comic operetta, which is based on Voltaire’s “Candide, ou l’optimisme,” takes audiences of a colorful journey at relentless pace with some true standout performers.
Playing With Stereotypes
The attraction kicks off right from the moment you walk into the Rose Hall at Jazz at Lincoln Center. The imposing arch that dominates the stage looks like a rainbow in its variety of color with balconies layered up and down the stage. It sets the mood perfectly for an evening that includes a red-hot stage for an inquisition, a purple hue for a Turkish casino, a green forest and blue stain-glass windows. These are but a few of the numerous smooth sets employed throughout the operetta, giving constant visual excitement for the viewer while also encapsulating the scope and breadth of the narrative which takes place across two continents and several countries.
There is wild exaggeration with regards to all the cultures portrayed onstage, but all verging on tasteful caricature. While some might be insulted by the portrayals (the Jew with glasses and a long beard, the effeminate Inquisitor and the exaggerated accents for Latinos), Prince paints with a broad brush across the way with no culture or representation escaping some sort of stereotyping. And it is all done in quick fun, which take it as you like, is the whole point. Voltaire’s original work consistently pokes fun at the grotesqueness of the world and its sorry optimism and Harold, by pointing out the horrid stereotypes and laughing at them, does the same thing.
Prince, who directed the work with the company in 1982 and 2008, certainly keeps things fresh in how he approaches character, creating strong contrasts from his performers, with one star shining brightest.
In the title role as “Candide” is Jay Armstrong Johnson who has made a name for himself on Broadway and is currently on the ABC series “Quantico.” His voice has a delicate quality clearly suited for the Broadway world more so than the operatic one. But it works quite well in this role, his sweeter sound matching the hero’s naïve nature. That was most apparent in Candide’s meditiation “It must be so.” As he awkwardly ambled through one row of the audience, his voice’s gentle timbre soared throughout, the subtle ascensions in the melodic line delivered with an airy lightness that had a disembodied quality to them. This phrasing gave the word “sweetness” a richness that matched the text and music.
His clumsy gait and wide-eyed portrayal made Candide appear to be a child and the story’s thrust the destruction of his innocence. When halfway through the work he suddenly slammed the stage floor in frustrated anger, the audience jolted from the character shift. The young boy was starting to turn into a disillusioned man. Yet he retained the joviality about him, keeping the viewer invested in his plight all the way to the ambiguous ending.
Renaissance Man And His Strong Supporters
Gregg Edelman played six different roles on the evening showing a tremendous breadth of versatility. From his sexually charged Dr. Pangloss to his senile Sage to composed narrator Voltaire, Edelman was pure comic genius. At some points it became particularly obvious that a miscue had occurred on stage. Instead of being rattled by the moment, he reveled them. Early on during a classroom sequence, a bell fell off the desk. Edelman, picked it up, acknowledged the mistake to the audience and then reset the stage and restarted the scene to glowing applause. Later on he switched from one character to the next without making the appropriate wig change. An assistant came on with the appropriate wig and as he tried to transition from one to the other, one wig got caught in his costume. He eventually pulled it off, turned to the audience and acknowledged in deadpan that it happened every week. These unscripted moments drew tremendous joy from the audience and his performance was successful in its ability to pace the story.
Jessica Tyler Wright and Keith Phares were both solid supporting cast members as Paquette and Maximilian, both adding colorful moments to the procedures. Seeing Phares try to evade a sexual advance from Edelman’s governor brought about comic undertones while Tyler Wright’s sexual exchanges with Edelman’s Dr. Pangloss were easily some of the most hilarious moments of physical comedy of the night.
As the Old Lady, Linda Lavin gave a cooky performance. Her singing had a piercing quality to it that contrasted quite well from a comedic standpoint with that of the younger leads. She danced about with tremendous vigor and energy, particularly during her famed Tango, “I am so Easily Assimilated.”
The performances from the remaining cast members, of which there were dozens, were all riveting in how they gave Harold’s world so much color and vibrancy. Every piece in the puzzle fitting comfortably in its place.
A Star Ascending
As the title indicates, soprano Meghan Picerno delivered the standout performance of the night.
The coloratura soprano is going to be a star, if she isn’t already and was undeniably the most electric performer on the stage with no moment wasted and an ever-fascinating insight into the character of Cunegonde.
Unlike what most would expect, her Cunegonde isn’t so much an ingenue as she is a repressed ball of energy waiting for an outlet to be set free. Her piercing look over at Candide throughout the initial exchanges let us quickly identify with her flirtatious nature. During their “Marriage” duet, the awkwardness of their physicality and their looks away from one another as they expressed their respective dreams amplified a sense that they might not be a fit for one another. The giddiness that she exposed as she saw Candide murder her rich “lovers” suggested a darker edge and this was further developed as she sharply cut off the Old Lady from telling her tale of woe. Even her seductive dancing during the Turkish scene, a subtle gesture, gave us newer information about Cunegonde as she evolved into a woman of the world. Unlike Candide, who winds up frustrated and disillusioned, Picerno’s character retained a freshness and vitality, a woman who had been destroyed by the world but had been strengthened by her plight. Instead of wallowing in her grief, she enjoys what she can.
“Glitter and be gay” is arguably the most renowned piece from the entire work, with the last selection, “Make Our Garden Grow,” coming in at close second. Many of the world’s renowned coloratura sopranos take on “Glitter and be gay” for concert showpieces as it allows an opportunity for dazzling virtuosity, dramatic dynamism and yet, comedic touch. You don’t really get that in much other operatic repertoire.
But performing it in the context of a production is another thing altogether as the piece comes rather early on in the evening, when the soprano still has quite a lot of music yet to sing. Throwing it all out in this epic showstopper is not an option and yet, the audience expects that very thing. Balance is key.
Picerno straddled that line quite wonderfully, putting together a visceral portrait of Cunegonde that moved from sincere pain and suffering in the opening stanzas. Instead of exaggerating the droopy lines, as some sopranos do to set up the comedic contrast, she sang with full weight in her voice, intoning more dramatic colors, each legato line oozing into the next. There were no added inflections, the musical line taken seriously. Those unfamiliar with the piece would have thought we were moving through a meditative aria of pain and sorrow. This approach made the sudden shift to “And yet I rather like to revel haha” more effective. Picerno’s thick and creamy soprano suddenly turned into a nimble and brighter one, the consonants suddenly getting extra oomph in their pronunciation. She threw off one coloratura passage after another with no apparent difficulty whatsoever. The return to the sobbing melody is recited text, Picerno extending every phrase spoken text so that she could milk the dramatic effect again. The return to the brighter melody of “Enough Enough” was portrayed with one bravuda moment after another, the soprano ascending into her vocal stratosphere out of nowhere, eliciting thunderous applause while she still had a few tricks in the bag. At the very end of the aria, Picerno stretched every last note creating tremendous suspense, the eventual release of it received with the longest ovation of the evening.
Did I mention that she sang this fiendishly difficult piece while prancing down a staircase, twirling around and playing incessantly with props? Not one moment was wasted and in collaboration with Prince’s astute direction, every single coloratura run received a physical representation. Just when you thought they might be out of ideas, Picerno dished out a new unexpected action with grace and agility. This gave the music new life and exemplified the versatility of an artist to keep an eye out.
A Steady Ship
The orchestra, conducted by Charles Prince, was the steady engine that kept this delightful ship sailing smoothly. It backed off throughout to allow Edelman’s narration to take the spotlight but was assertive in the major choral works, adding weight to the sound of the ensemble.
However, Prince and the orchestra saved their best for last. The final number, “Make Our Garden Grow,” rich with lush strings and winds built up slowly to its emotional apex, the explosion of sound resonating through the hall with titanic volume that had been restrained for the remainder of the evening.
As a way to kick off the New York City Opera’s 2017 schedule, this was indeed the best of all possible ways. Here’s to hoping that the remainder of the schedule, which includes rather unique and varied works, is a fruitful operatic garden.