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I’M IN GOOD company asking whether Leonard Bernstein’s Candide is an opera, an operetta, or a musical comedy. No less than the composer himself asked the same question, with his answer being essentially whichever you like.
Daughter Suz and I recently saw the LA Opera’s Candide, and we liked it immensely, whatever its genre. In celebrating the centenary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth, I offer here some tidbits about his Candide, Voltaire’s original, and Candide CDs in my collection.
Voltaire wrote his novella Candide ou l’Otimisme in 1759 as a satirical response to the Theodic Optimism of German mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Englishman Isaac Newton and Leibniz were independent co-discoverers of calculus, the mathematical tool for analyzing motion. The German polymath also had a strong philosophical streak. Leibniz’s concept of Theodicy (as in Latin theo, god) implied that an all-perfect Deity would logically produce nothing but the best of all possible worlds.
In an early ensemble piece, “The Best of All Possible Worlds,” Pangloss optimistically proves the goodness of snakes. Recalling the serpent and Mother Eve, he sings, “If snake had not seduced our lot/And primed us for salvation/Jehova could not pardon all/The sins that we call cardinal/Involving bed and bottle!/Now on to Aristotle!”
Take that, Leibniz!
Candide is an innocent Westphalian lad of less than liturgically blessed parentage. He falls in love with his cousin, Cunégonde, whose aristocratic beauty is exceeded only by her charming superficiality.
Singing “Oh, Happy We,” the two recognize early on that they’re a perfect match. Candide: “Soon, when we feel we can afford it,/We’ll build a modest little farm.” Cunégonde: “We’ll buy a yacht and live aboard it,/Rolling in luxury and stylish charm.” Candide: “Soon there’ll be little ones beside us;/We’ll have a sweet Westphalian home.” Cunégonde: “Somehow we’ll grow as rich as Midas;/We’ll live in Paris when we’re not in Rome.”
“Glowing rubies.” “Glowing logs.” “Faithful servants.” “Faithful dogs.” “Breast of peacock.” “Apple pie.” “I love marriage.” “So do I.”
“Oh, happy pair!/Oh, happy we!/It’s very rare/How we agree.”
Yet there are problems galore for our young lovers, in particular a war between Westphalia and Bavaria. Candide survives, inexplicably on the Bavarian side of the slaughter. Cunégonde survives as well, albeit sans her purity.
Later, when asked how, in “You Were Dead, You Know,” she sings, “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?”
In fact, Candide even survives an encounter with the Spanish Inquisition. “Auto-Da-Fé” provides great lyrics: “What a day, what a day/For an auto-da-fé!/What a sunny summer sky! What a day, what a day/For an auto-da-fé!/It’s a lovely day for drinking/And for watching people fry!”
Among others, Jews are tried in the auto-da-fé. Inquisitor: “Are the culprits innocent or guilty?” Chorus, ominously: “Guilty.” Inquisitor: “Shall we pardon them or hang them?” Chorus: “Hang them.”
“What a day, what a jolly day,/ What a day for a holiday!/ He don’t mix meat and dairy./ He don’t eat humble pie./ So sing a Miserere/ And hang the bastard high!”
Candide is flogged, but taken away and saved by an Old Woman. Bizarrely enough, she is missing one of her buttocks. Not to worry, though, she too is a surviver and her “I Am Easily Assimilated” is a show-stopper.
The Old Woman sings, “I was not born in sunny Hispania./My father came from Rovno Gubernya./But now I’m here, I’m dancing a tango;/ Di dee di! Dee di dee!/I am easily assimilated./I am so easily assimilated.”
Bernstein had fun with these lyrics: His father Sam immigrated to the U.S. from Rovno Gubernya.
Candide and his friends have adventures a’plenty in both the Old and the New World. I particularly like El Dorado’s fabulously jeweled red sheep portrayed by two ditzy teens wielding knitting needles.
In the version Daughter Suz and I saw in Los Angeles, (there are several others), all ends happily with an a cappella chorus. “We’re neither pure, nor wise, nor good./We’ll do the best we know./We’ll build our house and chop our wood/And make our garden grow./And make our garden grow!”
Thanks, Voltaire. Thanks, Leonard Bernstein. Thanks, LA Opera. I needed that. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2018