'Candide' is good at whatever it is it's supposed to be

March 09, 1995|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

Candide, the optimistic hero of Voltaire's satiric novella of that name and of the Leonard Bernstein musical theater piece that Voltaire inspired, is a world traveler.

Bernstein's "Candide," which will be performed by Peabody Opera Theatre starting tonight, takes its hero from his Westphalian home and plunges him into ever-greater disasters in Paris, Lisbon (where he barely survives the great earthquake), Madrid (where he is beaten and flayed by the Spanish Inquisition), to the New World, to the imaginary world of El Dorado, and finally -- after surviving a shipwreck -- back to Westphalia.

Along the way, the innocent Candide sees his family bayoneted to death; his beautiful love, Cunegonde, raped, bayoneted, reduced to a life of prostitution and finally disfigured by syphilis; and his tutor Pangloss survive being bayoneted only to be garroted by the Inquisition.

Through it all, however, Candide survives to sing his part in the music's glorious and affecting finale.

The adventures of Candide are rather like those of Bernstein's theater piece itself. Its troubled history of failure, revisions, still more revisions, and finally acceptance -- in essentially its original form -- into the repertory make the hardships endured by such masterpieces as Verdi's "Don Carlos" and Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov" seem minor by comparison.

Few musicals opened on Broadway with the sense of anticipation that "Candide" created in 1956. Its creators composed a virtual "Dream Team": Bernstein had just been named conductor of the New York Philharmonic and had just been acclaimed for his score for the Academy Award-winning film, "On the Waterfront"; Lillian Hellman, who wrote the book, was the celebrated author of such plays as "The Little Foxes"; and the poet Richard Wilbur, who wrote the best of "Candide's" lyrics, was at the beginning of a career that was to leave him an enduring reputation as one of the 20th century's best poets.

Despite all this and despite warm reviews, "Candide" was a failure and closed after 73 performances. Its trouble may have been caused by the seriousness with which Bernstein's deceptively light-hearted music explored Voltaire's themes -- social injustice, sexual and religious hypocrisy, and closed-mindedness. These themes were particularly relevant to mid-century Americans, but may have made some audiences uncomfortable.

The biggest problem, however, may have been that "Candide" exists in a twilight zone between genuine Broadway shows such as Bernstein's own "West Side Story" and operas such as Mozart's "Magic Flute," Rossini's "Le Comte Ory" and Sullivan's "Princess Ida."

Audiences didn't know what to make of "Candide." It suffered revision after revision for revivals between 1958 and 1971. Then it underwent a major rewriting, which included a new libretto, for a 1973 revival on Broadway.

And then it underwent further revisions -- in 1982, 1988 and 1989, when Bernstein returned to record the piece in an edition close to the state in which he left "Candide" 33 years earlier.

Just before the 1956 premiere of "Candide," the composer himself suggested "operetta" as the most appropriate term for his work. But is it really an operetta -- or is it a musical, a light opera, a comic opera or an opera?

But why waste time? We don't ask these questions about "The Magic Flute" or "Le Comte Ory."

And as this week's Peabody production should make clear, we don't have to ask them about "Candide" either.

'CANDIDE' PREVIEW

What: Peabody Opera Theatre

When: 8:15 tonight, tomorrow and Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday

Where: Friedberg Concert Hall

Cost: $10-$20

Call: 659-8124

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