A Mammoth, Deliriously Funny, Searingly Relevant New Recording of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide

by delarue

Once one dismisses
The rest of all possible worlds
One finds that this is
The best of all possible worlds

So sings Sir Thomas Allen in his role as Dr. Pangloss, in the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus’ epic new recording of Leonard Bernstein’s satirical opera Candide, streaming at Spotify.

When Lillian Hellman enlisted Bernstein and what would become a rapidly expanding cast of lyricists in this ridiculously funny parable of McCarthyite witch hunting, little did anyone involved with the project know how much greater relevance it would have in the months after March of 2020. Marin Alsop leads the orchestra and a boisterous allstar cast of opera talent in a massive double album culled from concert performances in the fall of 2018.

Tenor Leonardo Capalbo plays the title role. Soprano Jane Archibald is Cunegonde and mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter plays the Old Lady, with a supporting cast of Thomas Adkins, Marcus Farnsworth, Katherine McIndoe, Carmen Artaza, Lucy McAuley, Liam Bonthrone, Frederick Jones and Jonathan Ayers in raucous multiple roles. Simon Halsey directs the choir.

Alsop and the orchestra have just as much fun as the singers. Bernstein’s score comes across as almost as satirical as the text. As a parody of centuries of European opera, it’s not quite Scaramouche doing the fandango, but it’s close. The coda of act one is priceless.

For the most part, the plot is consistent with Voltaire’s novel. As you would expect in an operatic context, the characters are infinitely more over-the-top. We learn early on what a horrible pair the credulous Candide and the bling-worshipping Cunegonde make. Innuendo flies fast and furious, and some of the jokes are pretty outrageous for a production first staged in the late 50s. The lyric book by itself is a riot – although it only has the songs, not the expository passages. Listen closely for maximum laughs.

Alsop perfectly nails Bernstein’s tongue-in-cheek seriousness and good-natured melodic appropriation, through one stoically marching, bombastic interlude after another. There’s phony pageantry to rival Shostakovich. Swoony string passages and hand-wrenching arias alternate with the occasional moment where Bernstein drops the humor and lets the sinister subtext waft in. The most amusingly grisly part of the story is set to a parody of the climactic scene in the Mozart Requiem. Brecht/Weill’s Threepenny Opera and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherezade are recurrent reference points.

The most spectacular display of solo vocal pyrotechnics belongs to Archibald – in response to a hanging, appropriately enough. For the choir, it’s the Handel spoof early in the second act. Music this comedic seldom inspires as much repeated listening. And the political content, in an age of divide-and-conquer, speaks truth to what at this moment seems to be rapidly unraveling power.