The Volksoper premiered a new Candide tonight, in an unstaged adaptation of the 1999 version. Bernstein’s operetta has an unfortunate and problematic performance history, so this may represent one of the better attempts to make sense of it all. Bernstein had a flair for the dramatic, but Candide failed miserably as a stage production and I have never understood why he, of all people, thought it might succeed. Voltaire’s story is not conducive to staging, especially when edited down to fit into a night’s performance, jumping as it does all over the planet. As a parody, however, it works.
And, of course, Bernstein’s music works. So for more than half a century, different people have attempted to preserve Bernstein’s music with a semblance of the plot, with more or less staging. Tonight’s adaptation did not try to stage it at all, although the singers provided some acting. The arranger had an actor substitute all of the dialogue with German-language narrative, although all of Bernstein’s musical numbers were performed in the original English. In this way, the Volksoper’s artistic director Robert Meyer, appearing as the narrator, managed to capture the story’s humor without the distractions of an impossible plot, as well as throwing in additional jokes. Taking care of the plot in this way, he allowed the singers to concentrate on the music, pulling off the comic lyrics to the melodious tunes. Stephen Chaundy (Candide) and Jennifer O’Loughlin (Cunegonde) were in full voice as the leading couple. Morten Frank Larsen made a fine Pangloss, and Kim Cresswell (quite a performer, although in uneven voice) provided wit and charm in the role of the Old Lady. Joseph R. Olefirowicz conducted an elegant and idiomatic interpretation of Bernstein’s music, which, in the end, remains the reason people keep desperately trying to find good ways to perform this otherwise heavily-flawed operetta.