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
One person’s perfectionism is the other’s neurosis. So let’s stop quibbling over how to label it and figure out how to fix it.
It seems that naming something gives the namer some sort of power over it: think for example of the Bogey Man, much less scary when you call it that. We can start by looking at some of the attitudes and actions (or inactions) suggested by the polite term “perfectionism.” These can occur across a spectrum that ranges from hesitation to complete paralysis and includes: chronic indecision, procrastination, anxiety in the face of options and a wide variety of the sorts of behaviors the British call “dithering.”
Once you’ve diagnosed yourself as a ditherer (or worse) and before you begin budgeting for the psychotherapist, try tapping into some of the resources that are easily at hand, and free. Well, that is if lingering student loans don’t continue to keep a price tag on your course in Philosophy 101.
Take the times when I have still not written the thank you note, because I don’t have time to write the whole and memorable letter I want it to be. Or I’ve taken a pass on Weight Watchers because I know I must and can lose much more than two pounds per week without group intervention. I know it’s time to recall the advice of my brother who used wisely to nudge me on with the reminder, “Remember, honey, the perfect is the enemy of the good.” Uncommonly good common sense that applies to the situation.
And if that doesn’t work, I have learned that a fellow named Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz is also a very convincing counselor. Remember Leibniz from late night cramming for the History of Philosophy exam? The shorthand reminder about his theory that the principle of reality was something called a “Monad.” His tag line was, “This is the best of all possible worlds.”
Voltaire had a heyday with that phrase which he parodied in the story of the starry eyed optimist Candide. Leonard Bernstein kept the joke going into the 20th Century with his musical of the same name. But it turns out that their joke at the expense of Leibniz may have obscured the very practical insight at the heart of his philosophy. To understand how that happened just change the emphasis before repeating the phrase. Instead of saying “This is the best of all possible worlds,” say “This is the best of all possible worlds.” See the difference?
If at this point you find yourself recalling that the academic pigeonhole for Leibniz was “rationalist” and that his talk of the “best of all possible worlds” sounds like a classic rationalization of bad times, it may be wise to take a second look. His was not just the reflection of someone who took a look at his 17th century Europe and decided that it was a perfect paradise. I think it was the world view of one who very hardheadedly grasped that all the abstract, theoretical worlds of “might have beens” or “should have beens” or “could bes” were just so many distractions and that the real business of living lies in coming to terms with the gritty marvel of what really is.
Leibniz’s phrase appears in an essay that considers the goodness of God, the freedom of the human person and the origin of evil. In it he takes the position that the very roadblocks of life, the stones in the road en route to the great good things that live as theoretical possibilities actually make the world better and more tolerable by eliciting good human responses like courage. He had the unusual (and I think highly realistic) view that an entirely perfect world would be not only impossible but even intolerable.
For him the problem of evil is the problem of sorting out what is life-enhancing and what is life-diminishing. That sort of insight and attitude can be a very enabling tool to use in the work of making sense of the experience of limitation and of suffering. It is not simply the stoic, grit your teeth attitude expressed by those who say, “What doesn’t kill you can make you stronger.” It is more like the understanding of why it is that people who have weathered some of life’s storms are often more attractive human beings and more desirable friends than the “golden ones” who seem to sail through life without ever experiencing a setback.
It is far too easy to relegate the study of philosophy, and even more the philosophers themselves, to a mental museum. In that museum everything is bigger than life, like a hall of dinosaurs that it is hard to connect with any animal life we have actually experienced. In that context, the “problems” are the sorts that are much too big ever to get solved. The theories are much too abstract ever to intersect with life as most of us live it.
In a way, that’s not surprising. There is the distance of history and of linguistic style that separates us from many of the greatest philosophers. And then there is the simple matter of trying to put an insight into words, in any age or language. Think for a moment of the last time you tried to explain one of your own “lightbulb moments,” one of those insights when for a moment something that was impossibly complex appeared remarkably simple and sorted out. Chances are that trying to capture that moment in language may often obscure rather than reveal the meaning you saw for a moment.
That process reminds me of a wonderful definition of poetry that I remember as being Poetry is the opening and closing of a door, leaving those behind to reflect on what was seen in a moment. It may be that the great philosophers are best understood and appreciated when one of the catch phrases associated with them connects with and illuminates a very specific moment of living. In that moment, a path is opened, a connection is made and both the very particular experience and the insight that makes sense of it are joined by an association that provides the path that firmly connects them. In that moment, it becomes evident what it means to say “philosophy is a system of ideas for making sense of experience.”
In this process of partnering with philosophers in the enterprise of making sense of one’s experience, experience is both the stimulus and the common ground. It can become productive in both directions, viewing one’s own experience from the vantage point of the philosopher’s insight and vice versa. The philosopher’s view illuminates the experience and seeing the philosophy in relation to common human experience gives it a reality and a utility it may never have had as an academic course.
Basic human experience can make much more sense of the philosophy and vice versa. In the light of that every day experience it “makes sense” in a way no theory can. So my advice is to see the “perfect” for what it often is in daily life. And don’t let it distract you from understanding life as a journey to be savored today, more than an impossible goal to be achieved sometime in the dim, distant future. I think Uncle Leibniz would agree.