Palm Beach Opera fetes Bernstein in style with a winning “Candide”

By Lawrence Budmen

X and y in Bernstein's "Candide" at Palm Beach Opera.

Miles Mykkannen and Alisa Jordheim in Bernstein’s “Candide” at Palm Beach Opera.

Leonard Bernstein was one of America’s greatest musicians. Wearing multiple hats as one of the leading conductors of the twentieth century, composer, educator and musical communicator, Bernstein’s contribution to the world’s cultural heritage was immense. (Through his television programs, lectures and writings, Bernstein pursued classical outreach before the marketing specialists and grant writers knew what that was.)

In this centennial year of Bernstein’s birth, Palm Beach Opera has done him proud with a festive production of his 1956 operetta Candide. The two hour and twenty minute performance at the Kravis Center on Friday night just seemed to fly by, so delightful was this eye-filling, musically scrupulous version of one of Bernstein’s most singular and unique creations.

Although Candide may be Bernstein’s operatic masterpiece, it has long been a theatrical problem child. Based on Voltaire’s sardonic novella (which satirizes religion, war, greed and worldly optimism), the work initially bombed on Broadway, closing after only 73 performances. Apparently Lillian Hellman’s heavy-handed book and Tyrone Guthrie’s listless staging were working in opposite directions from Bernstein’s witty score. Unlike most Broadway flops, however, Candide would not die.

Up until the last year of his life, Bernstein continued to tinker with the work, working with new collaborators to revise the libretto. The number of lyricists alone who contributed to Candide may have set a record. Richard Wilbur, John La Touche, Hellman, Dorothy Parker, Stephen Sondheim and Bernstein and his wife Felicia Montealegre all contributed texts, either initially or for later editions. Hugh Wheeler and John Wells devised new adaptations of Voltaire’s story.

The Palm Beach Opera production offered a revision of a revision, and this hybrid was the Candide that many have long been waiting for. In 2004 actor-director Lonny Price adapted Wheeler’s 1982 “opera house” version for a semistaged concert performance by the New York Philharmonic that restored some music that was cut prior to the original Broadway opening. Director Jay Lessinger has adapted Price’s edition for a full staging and it succeeds on every level. One of the problems with the version Wheeler and director Harold Prince conceived (initially in an abridged Broadway version and then for the opera house) was that the story was often reduced to vaudevillian slapstick and Voltaire’s barbs diluted. Lessinger’s staging manages to tone down the hyperactive laugh riot of that conception, restoring the balance with Bernstein’s bristling, comedic and inventive score.

PBO has fielded a dream cast that does full justice to Bernstein’s memorable melodies. In the title role, Miles Mykkanen’s boyish demeanor, dulcet lyric tenor and reserves of vocal power and stamina perfectly embodied the naive protagonist. Mykkanen actually made one believe that Candide could endure war, poverty and the death and enslavement of friends and lovers and still remain optimistic. His sheer theatrical aplomb almost overshadows his subtle vocal artistry. He movingly captured the pathos of “It Must Be So” and “Is This All Then?” Mykkanen’s English diction was absolutely clear, whether singing or in spoken dialogue.

Not diminishing Mykkanen’s splendid depiction in any way, it is fair to say that the women owned the night. Alisa Jordheim was a natural operetta soubrette and born comedienne as the long-suffering heroine Cunegonde. Her sweet timbre blended felicitously with Mykkanen for “Oh, Happy We” and “You Were Dead, You Know,” Bernstein’s hilarious send up of an operatic reunion duet. She milked the showpiece “Glitter and Be Gay” for all it was worth. Her split-second timing, cascades of coloratura and endless parade of adorned jewelry brought down the house for a prolonged ovation.

Once a leading Carmen and Delilah, Denyce Graves has transitioned into character roles. (Last season she was a standout in a cameo in Florida Grand Opera’s production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin.) In the juicy role of the Old Lady, Graves commanded a mock quasi-Russian accent and danced the tango with the flair of a Broadway hoofer. Her deep, throaty mezzo and subtle word play captured the sly innuendo of “I Am So Easily Assimilated.” Jordheim and Graves kicked up their heels and matched high notes in “We are Women” for one of the evening’s most entrancing moments. Kasia Borowiec was a saucy Paquette with the agile soprano high notes to match.

Theater veteran Ron Raines doubled as the narrating Voltaire and Candide’s nonsense-spouting mentor Dr. Pangloss. Raines is the kind of scene stealer who makes every line and gesture count and he commands the type of old-fashioned baritone that used to be a staple of the Great White Way (in the manner of John Rait, Howard Keel or Richard Kiley).

Tobias Greenhalgh had the sturdy baritone and comic chops for Maximillian, Cunegonde’s egotistical brother. Singers from PBO’s young artist program shone in cameo roles. Two were particularly impressive. Derrek Stark projected a big, ardent tenor as the amorous Governor of Montevideo and was a sinister Grand Inquisitor and the perfect comic foil as the corrupt casino owner Ragotski. Joshua Conyers’ meaty bass baritone was a standout as a captain and judge of the Spanish Inquisition. Even the company’s director Daniel Biaggi had a walk on as the ship captain who offers Candide passage to Montevideo.

David Stern led a brisk reading of the famous overture, drawing brilliant playing from the strings and brass. He kept the pace lively and buoyant throughout the evening while bringing out the charm of Bernstein’s infectious tunes. The finale “Make Our Garden Grow” was eloquently assayed by the full cast. Greg Ritchey’s chorus was consistently outstanding, prancing about the stage in Maria Newbery Greer’s high-stepping choreography as well as singing with zest and voluminous ensemble.

Lessinger’s fast-paced staging was consistently funny without neglecting the story’s darker subtext. His depictions of exotic locales in Jerome Sirlin’s multihued projections filled the stage with color. Hallie Dufresne’s eye catching array of costumes and Michael Baumgarten’s elegant lighting enhanced the production’s theatrical magic. The opening chorus of the El Dorado scene could well have come out of a 1930’s Hollywood musical in Lessinger’s stylized tableaux.

This Candide is a real winner. There are two remaining performances and there is no better way to celebrate the centennial of an American musical icon.

Palm Beach Opera repeats Candide 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach.; 561-833-7888

The Palm Beach Opera’s 2019 season was announced at Friday night’s performance. Verdi La Traviata opens the season on January 25-27, followed by Mozart’s Don Giovanni (February 22-24) and Strauss’s Die Fledermaus (March 22-24). Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe will sing the role of Prince Orlofsky in the Strauss operetta.

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Palm Beach Opera fetes Bernstein in style with a winning “Candide””

  1. Posted Feb 25, 2018 at 12:57 pm by Alex Barry

    Bravi to all! I really wish I could have seen this!

  2. Posted Mar 02, 2018 at 12:40 pm by Daukantas

    Did not like it. Couldn’t hear
    dialogue. Tosca was great.

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Sat Feb 24, 2018
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