Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony certainly have form when it comes to presenting successful concert versions of stage productions – be they operas, such as Britten’s Peter Grimes, or Broadway musicals like Bernstein’s West Side Story and On the Town – so in this centennial year of the remarkable Leonard Bernstein, what better than a concert version of his comic operetta Candide!
Inspired by Voltaire’s 1758 satirical novella on the fashionable philosophies of his day, the adaptation of Candide as a musical was originally suggested to Bernstein by playwright Lillian Hellman, in 1953. Based on a book by Hugh Wheeler, after Voltaire, Candide wasn’t, however, destined to have a smooth path to success. The production was beset by one challenge after another. At least six well-known personalities – including Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, Stephen Sondheim and Bernstein himself – have had an input into the lyrics, and Candide has undergone a number of variations since the original opening on Broadway in 1956. There are currently five different versions available to license.
None of this, however, can detract from the quality of the music, created by one of the greatest composers of the 20th century. With its brilliant overture – hugely popular as a standalone concert piece – the musical is fun and humorous, and chock-full of lyrical and memorable melodies. The story is narrated by Voltaire – who also takes on the personae of various characters who appear in it – telling of a young man, Candide, who, with his betrothed, Cunegonde, goes around the world on an extraordinary romp, believing passionately in the theory of his teacher, Dr Pangloss, that everything that happens is for the best, and that the world is wonderful, no matter what fate befalls them.
Taking the title role in this concert version is tenor Andrew Stenson, a graduate of the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program. The recipient of a 2011 Sara Tucker Study Grant from the Richard Tucker Foundation, Mr Stenson also took first prize in both the 2015 Giulio Gari International Vocal Competition and the 2016 Gerda Lissner Foundation Competition, and he has sung the role of Candide with Théâtre du Capitole, Toulouse and Opéra National de Bordeaux.
Coloratura soprano Meghan Picerno is Cunegonde, a role she sang in New York City Opera’s acclaimed 2016 revival by Hal Prince. Described by The New York Times as “an exuberant Cunegonde”, she also delivered what New York Classical Review hailed as “by far the standout vocal peformance of the night”. Among Ms Picerno’s other recent appearances are those as Queen of the Night in productions of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall.
The role of The Old Lady is sung by internationally renowned soprano Sheri Greenawald, director of the San Francisco Opera Center since 2002, and artistic director of the Merola Opera Program. Ms Greenawald has performed leading roles with some of the world’s leading companies, including San Francisco Opera, the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, La Fenice in Venice, the Munich Bavarian State Opera, Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, Teatro San Carlos in Naples, Welsh National Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Santa Fe Opera and Los Angeles Opera.
Among the characters that Candide and Cunegonde come across is Paquette, sung by soprano Vanessa Becerra. A recent graduate of the acclaimed Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program at LA Opera, Ms Becerra appeared at the 2017 Glimmerglass Festival in the role of Laurey Williams in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! Her performance of Out of My Dreams was described by Opera News as “a moment of true vocal charm”.
Other characters which Candide and Cunegonde meet are Maximillian and the Captain – both sung by baritone Hadleigh Adams, a graduate of the San Francisco Opera Merola Program, who was subsequently invited to join the Company as an Adler Fellow. The most recent appearance by Mr Hadleigh for San Francisco Opera was as Schaunard in La Bohème.
The roles of Voltaire, Pangloss, Martin and Cacambo are sung by baritone Michael Todd Simpson, “an elegant baritone who sings with lustre and acts with conviction”, writes Huffington Post. Having appeared in most of the major opera houses in the United States, he also sings the role of Gaylord Ravenal on the DVD of San Francisco Opera’s production of Show Boat.
Michael Tilson Thomas leads the San Francisco Symphony, the San Francisco Symphony Chorus (director Ragnar Bohlin), and guest artists, in this production of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide which runs at Davies Symphony Hall from January 18 to 21. For more information, for performance times, and for tickets, visit the San Francisco Symphony website.
An hour prior to the performances, Leonard Bernstein’s daughter and son – Nina Bernstein Simmons and Alexander Bernstein* – present an introduction to Candide, accompanied on the piano by Peter Grunberg. These introductions are free to ticketholders.
*Alexander Bernstein will present on January 18 and 19, and Nina Bernstein on January 20 and 21.
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