New York City Opera has risen like a phoenix from threats to its demise. Lavish staging of Candide by the estimable Harold Prince is, but for a few casting glitches, glorious. (The director previously helmed productions both with this company and elsewhere.) It’s been a great many years since many of us attended a performance of Candide, yet the overture sounds like an old friend, filling one with happy anticipation. Sound Design (Abe Jacob) and orchestration are superb.
The story of star-crossed lovers Candide (Jay Armstrong Johnson) and Cunegonde (Meghan Picerno) is narrated by the play’s author Dr. Voltaire (Gregg Edelman). Cunegonde’s parents, the Baron (Brooks Ashmanskas) and Baroness (Sishel Claverie), and her brother, Maximilian (Keith Phares), disdain Candide as a bastard, forbidding marriage.
Jay Armstrong Johnson, Jessica Tyler Wright, Gregg Edelman, Keith Phares, Meghan Picerno
With the addition of flirty, sexually accommodating maid, Paquette (Jessica Tyler Wright), the three young people are home schooled by “wisest of all philosophers and scholars” Dr. Pangloss (Gregg Edelman) who teaches “Everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.” Contentedness might be scooped with a spoon, but doesn’t last.
Candide is exiled and conscripted (in a potato sack) by two Bulgarian soldiers warring with Westphalia. Cunegonde’s family is slaughtered. She herself is kidnapped and raped. Before he can climb out of his sack and she can raise herself from a state of exhausted discard, not 20 feet from where he’s been abandoned, immediate experience forgotten, they’re singing a duet. Get used to it.
Chip Zien, Gregg Edelman, Brooks Ashmanskas and the company
Both characters, eventually joined by nine-lived Maximilian, Paquette and “the old lady” have a series of preposterous adventures separating and reuniting them as they’re borne by circumstance from Lisbon to Spain to The New World, Turkey and back. Used and abused (especially our ingénue) they’re nonetheless resourceful, steadfast, forgiving, and optimistic. Despite Cunegonde’s early aspirations to live the high life, the group ends up fulfilling Candide’s ambitions to have a little farm. Voltaire was, after all French and one must consider The Age of Enlightenment as having some way to go.
Meghan Picerno, Linda Lavin, Jay Armstrong Johnson
It’s good to see Harold Prince back in harness. The veteran director never once loses awareness of aesthetics on another large, somewhat complicated set. Whether the company is placed as chorus, playing a street scene (during which every participant has action and attitude), or united in movement, the stage looks swell. At one perfectly appropriate point, Candide works his way across an audience row; the Sage appears on a balcony, dropping parchment homilies like leaves. (This parentheses is the one point that drags.) Excepting those of Edleman and Lavin, Prince handles flamboyant character turns with eyebrow raised finesse.
Meghan Picerno, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Linda Lavin, Gregg Edelman
Jay Armstrong Johnson (Candide) has a simply beautiful tenor and displays fine acting. As Cunegonde, Meghan Picerno offers remarkable range and control, but she’s often a tad strident and less obtusely innocent than one imagines the character. The narcissistic Maximilian is well served by Keith Phares’s droll manifestation and excellent vocals. Wry warhorses Brooks Ashmanskas and Chip Zien have a winking comic touch in multiple roles.
To my mind, there are two major casting mistakes. Gregg Edelman (Dr. Voltaire, Dr. Pangloss, the Sage and others) can sing, but is neither a character actor, nor ever funny. His endless turn as the Sage is palpably painful. Linda Lavin (Old Lady), otherwise funny in her signature Upper West Side, deadpan, New York persona, is out of her realm both vocally and theatrically. Occasional Yiddish accent of a word makes one wince.
A marvelous, illustrated Set by Clarke Dunham provides just the right context for this zany tale of excessive pastiche. Were this a children’s book, he’d be awarded the Caldecott Medal. Hidden among appealing artwork, stairwells and balconies give the show’s director ample territory on which to play. Dunham inventively utilizes cut-outs (deliciously on cart wheels) and banners giving the show a naïve (not unpolished) feel, the extravagant masquerade of a music hall. His ship (which rocks back and forth) is wonderful.
Judith Dolan’s Costumes collaborate with visual environment as effectively as they do story and character. Color is tapestry rich. Seemingly arbitrary layering is flattering, often silly, always decorative, and splendidly thought-out-especially headwear. The designer’s horse, sheep, and lion costumes are inspired.
Wig and Makeup Design by Georgiana Eberhard is also symbiotic. Nothing looks out of place despite eccentricity. Every role is given distinction. Faces emerge painted, but never vulgar.
New York City Opera hopes to take this production on tour. It would be a genuine pity not to make it available to further audiences.
The Opera’s 2016/2017 season includes seven new productions, three New York premiers, and one U.S. premiere. Next, in March, a new production of Respighi’s La campana sommersa and, in June, Peter Eotvos’ new production of Angels in America.
Photos by Sarah Shatz
Opening: Keith Phares, Jessica Tyler Wright, Linda Lavin, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Meghan Picerno
New York City Opera presents
Music by Leonard Bernstein
Book by Hugh Wheeler, Stephen Sondheim
Lyrics by Richard Wilber, Stephen Sondheim, John LaTouche, Leonard Bernstein
Directed by Harold Prince
Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall
January 8, 2017