Final Revised Version

by wjw on July 10, 2018

Candide1759The other night we made our way to the Santa Fe Opera— the only opera I know of that features tailgate parties— for a tailgate dinner and “Candide,” music by Leonard Bernstein, book and lyrics by a rather complex and storied group of collaborators, all inspired (or not) by the short novel by “M. le Docteur Ralph”, which was one of Voltaire’s hundred-odd pen names.

All clear so far?  It only gets more complex from here.

“Candide” originated not as an opera, but a Broadway show, originally conceived by Lillian Hellman as a play with music.  Bernstein talked her into making a proper Broadway musical, and Hellman wrote the book while poet Richard Wilbur (mostly) wrote the lyrics.  The original 1956 production was a horrific flop, though people generally liked the tunes.  Bernstein plundered his own songs for “West Side Story,” which he wrote at more or less the same time.

Anyway, the play wouldn’t die, and kept undergoing rewrites and revivals.  (Harold Prince revived it at least three times.)  Hellman wouldn’t let anyone change her book, so the play got a brand-new book by Hugh Wheeler.  Dorothy Parker, John Latouche, Stephen Sondheim, John Mauceri, and John Wells took a crack at the lyrics, along with Mr. and Mrs. Bernstein.

With each iteration, “Candide” became longer and more popular, and shifted from Broadway music to operetta to opera, depending on who’s doing it and with what degree of seriousness.  It’s now one of the most popular musical entertainments out there.

What I saw was, I think, the “final revised version” of 1989, the only version where the composer revisited his own music.

What the “final revised version” shows, I think, is that it’s possible to have too much of a good thing.

The production clocks in at two and a half hours, which is just too damn long for a comedy, especially a picaresque.   You could read Docteur Ralph’s novella faster than you could watch the stage production.

The music was light and sprightly, and the cast talented and attractive, Laurent Pelly’s direction was inventive, and by the end I was desperate to escape.  I could find nothing particularly wrong with any of the scenes (except for “I Am Easily Assimilated,” which really belongs in a different play, perhaps about the Borg), but since the story’s a picaresque you can just drop a couple of the episodes, or drastically shorten them, and preferably reduce the number of characters while you’re at it, and end up with a perfectly delightful theatrical experience.

Or you could just buy a soundtrack album, and play it, and not be bored at all, because the music is terrific.

As an aside, I note that Voltaire is still getting ridiculous amount of credit for bravely using Candide to satirize the philosophy of Leibnitz.  This was far from the bravest thing Voltaire ever did, since Leibnitz died shortly after Voltaire was born, and there’s nothing easier than satirizing the philosophy of your great-grandfather’s day.  It would be like me taking a brave stand against the contentions of A.J. Ayer.  If Voltaire had gone after David Hume, now that would have been a fight!

pecooper July 10, 2018 at 2:18 pm

Huh. The length of the show sounds like Bernstein let a desire to become Wagner get the better of him. You know what comedian Wagner was.

Susan July 10, 2018 at 9:52 pm

When I played in the high school band many many years ago, one of the pieces we performed was either the overture to Candide or a complilation of songs from the Broadway musical. I graduated in 1968 so it sounds like the songs that I really liked back then may have undergone some changes. I might be disappointed if I went to see it now since I really liked the music from that version.

wjw July 11, 2018 at 12:38 am

Susan, the music really wasn’t the problem. If you listen to the soundtrack alone, you’ll probably have a great time.

pecooper, Bernstein wasn’t even remotely Wagner— the music is light and clever throughout— but the play was just too damn long.

Phil Koop July 11, 2018 at 12:57 pm

There are a fair number of nice, short 20th century operas, but even the lightest operas of the 19th run to 2.5 hours.

Getting real, the big Wagner operas are all at least an hour longer. Siegfried usually runs to nearly five. One needs the strength of a hero merely to attend such a performance, you might think, never mind sing in it; yes, but the music is sublime.

pecooper July 12, 2018 at 2:02 pm

In my youth, I was quite taken with Wagner’s music but my appreciation has declined as I grow older and (dare I say it?) more mature. Now I every time hear “Ride of the Valkyries” I struggle to keep a straight face. In my mind, I hear Elmer Fudd singing, “Kill the Wabbit! Kill the Wabbit!!”

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