Marin Alsop with the LSO
Marin Alsop with the London Symphony Orchestra and the cast of Candide | Credit: Mark Allan

The fact that Candide was a commercial failure in its initial Broadway run helps explain the proliferation of versions of the operetta that now exist. If you expected the edition supervised by the composer Leonard Bernstein himself and dubbed the “final, revised version” to be the last word, you are partly right. It does have all the words written for Candide, including two versions of the Venice Gavotte, and a second Venetian number (“What’s the Use”), and Martin’s Laughing Song, and Candide’s “Nothing More Than This” all wrapped up in an overlong second act. But it did not mark the end of Candide editing.

In 2004, 15 years after the debut of Bernstein’s omnibus edition, the director Lonny Price created a concert version for the New York Philharmonic conducted by Marin Alsop, which showed that brevity is a virtue in comedy, if not always in operetta. This is the version that Alsop uses in her new recording with the London Symphony Orchestra, taken from live performances at the Barbican Center in December 2018 and released on the orchestra’s house label on October 15 this year. It’s a very welcome addition to the Candide discography.

Alsop and LSO - "Candide"

Gone are all of the numbers mentioned above, except the delightful “What’s the Use.” Also struck out was “Quiet,” with its spot-on parody of 12-tone music, while The King’s Barcarolle is used, as in other versions, as background music. Less fortunately, the polka “We Are Women” survives the cull, but you can’t have everything. “My Love,” the Governor of Buenos Aires’s number that opens the second act, is a musical repeat of the Quartet Finale that closes the first, but other than that, repetition is kept to a minimum. Price’s redaction goes a long way to making a show that delivers the original satiric vision without overstaying its welcome.

Candide survives on Bernstein’s endlessly inventive score, matched by a lyrical brilliance that has rarely been bettered even on Broadway, whose lyricists have always made comic light verse a specialty. Consider Richard Wilbur’s easy encapsulation of the basic idea of Voltaire’s Candide in what was, originally, the show’s opening number: “Once one dismisses the rest of all possible worlds / One finds that this is the best of all possible worlds.” It’s also practically a definition of the verb “gloss,” perfect for Dr. Pangloss.

Wilbur was a poet first and also (still) the best translator of Moliere’s plays into English, and he was a disciplined rhymester who was able to make flowing conversation out of strict poetic meter, as he does in the wonderful duet, “You Were Dead, You Know.”

Cunégonde: Ah, but love will find a way
Candide: Then what did you do?
Cunégonde: We’ll go into that another day / Now let’s talk of you / You are looking very well / Weren’t you clever, dear, to survive.
Candide: I’ve a sorry tale to tell / I escaped more dead than alive.

Alsop and LSO - "Candide"
Leonardo Capalbo and Jane Archibald as Candide and Cunégonde with the LSO | Credit: Mark Allan

Bernstein matches this brilliance with the musical wit of a great conversationalist. As Cunégonde changes the subject, the music modulates easily for the song’s “release” (or center section) and Candide answers ruefully in the relative minor key. There’s a fantastic transition, when the lovers are breathlessly interrupting each other: “Ah what torture … / Lisbon, Portu … / Ah, what torture…” The repeat of the song’s head melody comes without a bass note confirmation of the return of C major. A pedal G hangs out through an ironic quote of the “Paris Waltz,” until, after a sung cadenza, the C appears — under the words “at last.”

Probably the only Broadway musician/lyricist who could play this game at such a high level is Stephen Sondheim, who Harold Prince brought in to help shape his 1972 revival of the show. Sondheim contributed the lyrics of the new introductory number “Life Is Happiness Indeed,” the music repurposed from the Venice Gavotte. Sondheim loves making little musical scenes within closed numbers and he picks the perfect musical moment here to dramatize Maximilian’s infatuation with his own good looks: “Life is pleasant, life is simple/ Oh my God, is that a pimple? / No, it’s just the odd reflection / Life and I are still perfection.”

Prince and his librettist Harold Wheeler introduced the character of Voltaire, the narrator, to bring some of the author’s brimstone wit into the show, and with succeeding versions, the role has only become more indispensable. In Alsop’s production, that role is handled with such perfect geniality by Sir Thomas Allen, that once you hear him, it will be difficult to imagine the lines read by anyone else. He is the absolute centerpiece of the cast, without ever being less than completely natural and unforced. He’s very funny and his voice is perfect for Pangloss, as well.

Leonardo Capalbo is winning as Candide although his diction and tone are sometimes a little too Italianate for a Broadway operetta. Jane Archibald, as Cunégonde, hits paydirt with “Glitter and Be Gay” and is excellent everywhere else. I understand why Anne Sophie von Otter was cast as the old lady, and she certainly is able to sing the role brilliantly, but she was cast against type, and it doesn’t always work. Carmen Artaza, as Paquette, and Marcus Farnsworth, as Maximilian, are both excellent. Among the many supporting roles, Thomas Atkins gets a special call-out for terrific work as the Governor and six other roles.

Alsop has this score down and the London Symphony plays it with the same fervor and idiomatic flair they showed for Bernstein, who recorded it with them 30 years earlier. To compare her reading with her mentor Bernstein’s is a little pointless since her reading isn’t that radically different than his. She makes sure the music is well served. The London Symphony Chorus, directed by Simon Halsey, is enthusiastic and perfect. The recording balance and production are first rate. I only wish I had witnessed the whole show.

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