Saturday, January 27, 2018

Candide at the SF Symphony

Last week the San Francisco Symphony presented a concert version of Bernstein'sn 1956 musical/operetta, Candide. Paraphrasing from A Chorus Line, I would give the performance a Music 10, Drama 3. There are as many performing editions of Candide as Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffman, and for these concerts the Symphony resurrected a stripped-down version with narration and no dialogue created by John Mauceri and John Wells in 1988 for the Scottish Opera. The baritone Michael Todd Simpson above doubled as the Narrator and the foolish philosopher Dr. Pangloss, and he was given some updated, local jokes to throw into the mix, such as "The town of Westphalia would be considered in sophistication something like Fresno." (All production photos by Kristen Loken.)

The tunes throughout the two-hour production are irresistible, a collection of ballads, romantic duets, tangos, polkas and operatic parodies that manage to lodge in your brain as earworms for days on end. (I still have a half dozen of them solidly wedged there a week later, and one friend in the SFS Chorus put out a plea on Facebook, "Quiet head!!!!! Stop singing Candide music!!!") Michael Tilson Thomas led the orchestra in a tight, zippy reading of the score.

The principal singers (from left to right Meghan Picerno as Cunegonde, Andrew Stenson as Candide, Vanessa Becerra as Paquette, and Hadleigh Adams as Maximilian) all sang well, but even with amplification I could only understand about one out of every ten words of the brilliantly witty lyrics, and there were no supertitles to bridge the comprehension gap. In 2002, the SF Symphony presented a wonderful, semi-staged version of Candide under conductor Patrick Summers with Broadway musical stars George Hearn, Jason Danieley, Jennifer Welch-Babidge (the only operatic outlier), Rita Moreno, Keith Phares, and Marin Mazzie, and I remember being able to understand just about every word. The difference in diction between opera singers and Broadway performers is real.

It didn't help that the singers were wedged on a narrow platform behind the large orchestra and the even larger SF Symphony Chorus, or that there seemed to be no real stage direction, so everyone just hammed it up which looked like amateur hour. The most effective was Sheri Greenawald above as The Old Lady, partly because she didn't overdo the shtick.

The real star of this production was the chorus, which was large enough for a Berlioz Te Deum. Though their massed sound seemed like overkill for a Broadway musical, it was still glorious, and even this grumpy monkey got teary-eyed at the Make Our Garden Grow finale, one of the greatest endings for a musical ever written.

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