In the best of all possible worlds, Leonard Bernstein is a genius and his musical-operetta “Candide” is a great work. In real life, “Candide” invariably leaves me struggling, just like its protagonist, with my desire to be optimistic.
The piece is flawed, a string of episodes that loses steam as it continues. And then, just when I’m ready to dismiss it, here I am humming its tunes again, and going back, the morning after I’ve seen it, to compare the original 1956 version with the 1974 version that’s generally performed today.
On Saturday night, the Washington National Opera opened Francesca Zambello’s production of this problem child — which is not, by any means, the most problematic of Bernstein’s problem children. Zambello’s production, which originated at Glimmerglass in 2015, tries to emphasize the bitterness of the satire while embracing the piece’s wacky exuberance, the signature mischievous Bernstein tongue-in-cheek bear hug, in which the cheek the tongue is planted in may actually be yours.
I found the highs, in this iteration, a little less high than they were at Glimmerglass. But the whole thing overall felt more cohesive — or perhaps I was just more ready to embrace the inherent disjunct quality of this “number” opera, which saves itself at the end through the deus ex machina trick of pulling a memorable final number (“Make our Garden Grow”) out of a figurative hat.
“Candide” exemplifies a wishy-washy social relevance that became, in Bernstein’s wake, a veritable hallmark of American opera: Call it the school of “we’re pointing fingers, but not so obviously that we can’t back off if someone calls us on it.” Voltaire’s biting satire is watered down into song and dance, though Zambello turns up the heat in, for instance, the auto-da-fé chorus, maintaining an appropriately unfunny sinister madness as the manic crowd chants for blood and watches people die. (“When foreigners like this come/ To criticize and spy/ We chant a pax vobiscum/ And hang the b------ high!”) But the evening could have used some more incisiveness from the director.
One highlight is “Glitter and Be Gay,” which Zambello and her original Glimmerglass Cunegonde, Kathryn Lewek, turned improbably into a kind of feminist manifesto about living with sexual abuse. Lewek had to withdraw from the WNO production because of pregnancy, and Emily Pogorelc, who replaced her, let some of the role’s traditional cuteness leach back into her interpretation, though she kept the bite to the reading, and brought down the house.
“Candide’s” real glory remains its score, which shines through despite everything, though WNO made it a bit of a slog at times. Nicole Paiement, the conductor, may not have communicated the flow and ease that makes the breakneck overture such a tour de force, but she did convey the music’s energy and, like the production, its emphases, sometimes overpowering the singers in the process.
Alek Shrader, in his WNO debut in a role he’ll also sing in Santa Fe this summer, sang serviceably as Candide, though the shift between his lower and upper registers was marked in places, and he didn’t get to show the high operatic singing that has been his forte. Another debutant, Matthew Scollin, lanky and assured, brought firm singing to the role of Martin, the streetsweeper (as well as the Anabaptist James). Frederick Ballentine, a tenor in the Domingo-Cafritz program, had a breakout moment with Cacambo, Candide’s loyal servant in Act II.
In dramatic terms, there was a certain generic fresh-facedness to all the figures, none of whom had very much stage time to develop specific characters beyond cliche. The piece’s two comedic supports are the Old Lady, a wacky figure who becomes Cunegonde’s helper and protector, and Pangloss, the teacher whose resolute optimism fuels the deliberate absurdity of the piece’s premise that everything is for the best, however awful it may be. Denyce Graves proved to be a great choice for the Old Lady, throwing herself into the humor but not camping up the dialogue, and singing with a kind of unselfconsciousness that fit the character very well. Wynn Harmon, a singing actor who appeared in WNO’s “Show Boat” and “Lost in the Stars,” was inadequate to the role of Pangloss/Voltaire, having neither the vocal nor the dramatic presence fully to carry over the orchestra.
This “Candide” is one apex of the Kennedy Center’s ongoing celebration of the Bernstein centennial, a worldwide hyperfestival that has, certainly in the District, given an exhaustive and exhausting look at the work of this composer. The piece does demonstrate a quality that was particularly characteristic of Bernstein: the sense that he is getting away with something, eking out a victory, but only barely.
“Candide” continues at WNO through May 26. It runs in tandem with “The Barber of Seville,” which continues through May 19.