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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

SCRUTINY | TSO's Candide Pushes Bernstein's Wordplay A Little Too Far

By Arthur Kaptainis on April 27, 2018

Judith Forst and Bramwell Tovey dance during the performance of Leonard Bernstein's Candide (Photo: Jag Gundu)
The TSO offers a welcome distraction from the horrific tragedy in Toronto this week through the music of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide with conductor Bramwell Tovey at the helm. (Photo: Jag Gundu)

Toronto Symphony Orchestra: Candide by Leonard Bernstein.  Bramwell Tovey, conductor. At Roy Thomson Hall. April 26. Repeats Saturday. tso.ca 

Poor Candide. Leonard Bernstein’s musical (or, if you prefer a more genteel term, operetta) ran only 76 performances in 1956, a moderate flop by Broadway standards. The 1974 revival with lighter lyrics fared better but at a price in musical content. There were efforts at restoration in the 1980s and, notably, a 1989 recording with the composer on the podium.

On Thursday the Toronto Symphony Orchestra under Bramwell Tovey gave us something called the “1993 concert version” with no further explanation, although one infers from the order of numbers that there is a kinship with the authorized version of 1989. Six librettists are credited, starting with Richard Wilbur (1921-2017) and ending with Bernstein himself.

Well, whatever. Candide is a mixed experience however it is presented (I survived an Opera McGill staging a few weeks ago), and this performance was no exception. Even the opening minutes were problematic as a narrator plied us with didactic background on Voltaire’s satiric novella, including the role played by his ideological opponents, Gottfried Leibniz and Alexander Pope. Will this be on the test?

Members of Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, Candide (Photo: Jag Gundu)
Members of Toronto Mendelssohn Choir (Photo: Jag Gundu)

Eventually, the singing starts. While the score brims with good tunes and snappy rhythms, Candide’s travels never really acquire anything like dramatic momentum. Characters inexplicably return to life (as the duet “You Were Dead, You Know” explicitly acknowledges) and the unpleasant misadventures are essentially random.

Vocal excellence can make amends. Sounding hearty in her eighth decade, the great mezzo-soprano Judith Forst was genuinely funny as the Old Lady in “I Am Easily Assimilated.” Here was classic stage presence allied with a “European” accent that somehow enhanced the clarity of diction.

Another veteran Canadian was the coloratura Tracy Dahl, hitting her high notes in “Glitter and be Gay” and otherwise enjoying herself as Cunegonde. The staging was necessarily limited in this performance, so give Dahl an extra point for pulling a necklace from her décolletage and swinging it as a lasso.

Bramwell Tovey and Richard Suart (Photo: Jag Gundu)
Bramwell Tovey and Richard Suart (Photo: Jag Gundu)

It would be misleading to call the evening in any other way a vocal showcase. The American tenor Nicholas Phan was reliably in tune in the title role but often sang in a dreary Broadway mezza voce and barely troubled himself to act. Supporting roles that should have gone to experienced soloists were assigned to choristers.

As for the narrator Richard Suart, he wielded an appropriately sardonic British accent and added the mandatory references to contemporary American politics. But he did not speak with optimal clarity and was rather generously billed as a baritone. In his defence, it should be said that the narrator also takes three roles – a heavy workload.

Tovey himself got into the act and at certain points danced and sang. He led the score confidently, even if the famous overture sounded rather tossed off. The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, in tough times, performed with precision and grace. Both soloists and chorus were miked. Microphones are legal in musical comedy but still unusual in Roy Thomson Hall. The TSO sounded fine, minus a few glitches.

The conductor prefaced this long show (two-and-a-half hours with intermission) by granting the audience “permission to laugh” and issuing a plea to “have a great evening.” This was presumably a subtle reference to the circumstances in Toronto this week, but it might do as a disclaimer before any performance of Candide. Yes, much of the music is brilliant and much of the wordplay is clever.

But should we enjoy a laugh over the assault of the female lead (who is ‘humorously’ portrayed as enjoying the torment) and her descent into the life of a prostitute? Are the symptoms of syphilis really that funny? Voltaire’s savage satire might work on the page. I am not so sure about the stage. There are reasons for the semi-success of Candide.

There is repeat performance Saturday night. Judging by the size of the crowd on the first night, tickets will be available.

Arthur Kaptainis

Arthur Kaptainis

Arthur Kaptainis has been the classical music critic of the Montreal Gazette since 1986 and wrote for the National Post 2010-2016. His articles have appeared in Classical Voice North America and La Scena Musicale as well as Ludwig Van. Arthur holds an MA in musicology from the University of Toronto.
Arthur Kaptainis
Arthur Kaptainis

Arthur Kaptainis

Arthur Kaptainis has been the classical music critic of the Montreal Gazette since 1986 and wrote for the National Post 2010-2016. His articles have appeared in Classical Voice North America and La Scena Musicale as well as Ludwig Van. Arthur holds an MA in musicology from the University of Toronto.
Arthur Kaptainis
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