Leonard Bernstein’s Candide’s hybrid nature – is it a musical? is it an operette? Trying to determine which can make the experience of watching it particularly difficult for those who are not used to the musical theater. I must confess it for musicals are not my cup of tea. But I have made my acquaintance with Candide through the video in which Bernstein himself conducts the London Symphony Orchestra with a team of soloists that are apt enough for Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda or Verdi’s Luisa Miller, even though many of the participants were barely recovered from a severe case of flu.
In the version performed in the Deutsche Oper, Bernstein’s colorful orchestration has its Richard Straussian-ian (and its Johann Straussi-ian) moments – and it makes perfect sense that a good orchestra would want to try it. In any case, these two concert performances were dedicated to Loriot, whose German texts were used to link the musical numbers sung in the original language. The German humorist wrote that Candide is a unique musical, in the sense that the story outline, briefly described, takes as long as the musical itself to be told.
The very circumstance of having a Wagnerian orchestra such as the Deutsche Oper’s, under the baton of its musical director Donald Runnicles, made the performance interesting even for those – such as me – not really attuned to the musical idiom. Although the composer himself found an inimitable intensity of expression he could at the same time conjure tongue-in-cheek playing from his musicians. Runnicles cannot be accused of lack of enthusiasm. The orchestra offered brilliant playing and, in its relatively better-behaved approach, offered truly Mahlerian grandeur in many moments. If I am less enthusiastic about the chorus, it is because I could barely understand their English.
Toby Spence was supposed to sing the title role, but was replaced in the last minute by Stephen Chaundy, who did a very decent but hardly inspiring job in it. His Cunegonde couldn’t help being more flashy in comparison. Simone Kermes’s soprano is a couple of sizes lighter and smaller than June Anderson’s in Bernstein’s video – and her low notes were often overshadowed by the orchestra. She also missed Anderson’s native-speaker verbal fluency. (For example, I cannot help finding it funny when the American soprano sings apparently unimportant things such as “Paris, France” in her aria), but Kermes knows how “to carry a tune”, in the sense that even the most angular passages sounded singable and easy on the ear. Maybe there was more than a splash of Berlin-style cabaret in her “Glitter and Be Gay”, but only a purist would feel disturbed, and her ease with staccato and in alts is always impressive.