Fischer, colleagues look forward to Utah Symphony debut of Bernstein’s “Candide”

Tue Nov 06, 2018 at 12:23 pm
By Edward Reichel

Thierry Fischer will lead the Utah Symphony premiere of Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” this weekend.

The Utah Symphony will close out its Leonard Bernstein centennial celebration this weekend in Abravanel Hall with two performances of his 1956 operetta Candide. 

But this week’s performances will be no mere concert version. Candide will be semi-staged, with costumes and props, which, music director Thierry Fischer said, makes it a bit more of a challenge. In large part, that’s because the solo singers will be at the front of the stage with the maestro behind them and the Utah Symphony  and Chorus at the back. 

“It’s difficult, so I scheduled six rehearsals, “ said Fischer. “But I’ll soon find out if we really need that many as we get into it. Doing it this way [semi-staged] makes us push ourselves more, but it adds an extra dimension to the performance.”

“When you do a concert version you need to pull the magic out of the opera box and put it into the concert hall,” adds stage director Garnett Bruce. “You have to invite the audience to use their imagination.”

For these performances there will be a narrator dressed as Voltaire, whose novella of the same name was the inspiration for the Bernstein show. “It’s going to be a tongue-in-cheek way into Candide,” Bruce said.

Both Fischer and Bruce have some history with Candide. Last month Fischer conducted it with the Seoul Philharmonic, where he is the principal guest conductor. “It was the Korean premiere and it was amazing,” Fischer said. “The audience was so receptive.”

Bruce directed the performances in Korea and next month he’ll direct it in London with the London Symphony, under Marin Alsop.

Most of the Seoul cast is repeating the Salt Lake City dates, except for the two lead roles. Jonathan Johnson will be Candide, and Amy Owens, a former Utah Opera resident artist, will appear as Cunegonde. She replaces Lauren Snouffer who had to cancel due to illness. 

“I love Amy,” Fischer said. “I’ve done a few things with her, including Mahler Eight. She is the perfect Cunegonde. She has a beautiful voice, and her high notes come very easily without hesitation.”

Rounding out the cast are Hugh Russell as Dr. Pangloss; Victoria Livengood as the Old Lady; Aleks Romano as Paquette; and Mark Diamond as Maximilian.

Fischer performed under Bernstein’s baton as a young flutist in the Bavarian Radio Symphony. But it wasn’t until after Fischer was appointed the Utah Symphony’s music director in 2009 that he was exposed more fully to Bernstein as a composer. 

“His works are not played in Europe. So I was happy to discover his music and to be able to conduct some of his works during our Bernstein celebration.”

Bruce’s association with Leonard Bernstein and his family goes back to the late 1980s. Fresh out of college Bruce worked as an intern for Bernstein’s Amberson Productions. He also assisted on the celebrated 1989 recording of Candide, conducted by the composer in what’s known as the “final revised version.” It was recorded at London’s Barbican Centre with a stellar cast including Jerry Hadley, Christa Ludwig and June Anderson as Cunegonde.

Unlike most of Bernstein’s other stage works, Candide had a difficult birth. The show famously flopped at its Broadway premiere. The original libretto by Lillian Hellman underwent numerous revisions over the years from several different lyricists, including Stephen Sondheim.

One of the few successes that Candide experienced was the so-called Chelsea Version. A Broadway revival with a vastly reduced orchestra, conducted by John Mauceri, it was directed by the legendary Hal Prince and played at the Chelsea Theatre in New York in 1974. “It was basically a sex romp full of jokes and was a huge success,” Bruce said.

One of the problems that has always plagued Candide is that it isn’t easily pigeonholed. It’s not really a musical, nor is it quite an operetta. And calling it a comic opera doesn’t work too well, either. 

“I call it a ‘musical plus,’” Bruce joked. “It was written for Broadway, but since the 1980s it’s found a place in opera houses. And it merits a presence in concert halls as well.”

For the Abravanel Hall performances, Fischer and Bruce have made some judicious cuts to allow the story to flow more easily. “There are some songs that slow things down and aren’t that good,” Fischer said. “You can really tell when Bernstein wrote without giving much thought to it.”

What Fischer particularly likes about the show is that there is so much hidden in the words, between the lines. “It’s satire in the same manner as Mozart’s Così is, “ said Fischer. “The words are light, but the meaning is heavy.”

“There is a great deal of richness in Candide,” Bruce said. “There are lighthearted songs, there are some very moving, almost Mahleresque orchestral moments, and there are some wonderful chorales. There really is something for everyone here.”

Candide will be performed 7:30 p.m. Friday and 5:30 p.m. Saturday at Abravanel Hall. 801-355-2787.

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