Candide, Voltaire’s classic satire skewering optimism in a corrupt world, is one of those dark, wild, and politically savvy rides that—perhaps due to our, well, overly optimistic faith in progress—we don’t expect to find in the dusty tracts of history. First published in 1759, it is a reaction to the reign of reason and the assertion that, as the tale perversely insists, “All is for the Best in The Best of All Possible Worlds” (a popular theory of his day, propounded by Alexander Pope, et al). Voltaire exposes the dark underbelly of reason and rationalism, showing how a brave new system can quickly become a tool used to justify all actions—often corrupt and usually to the ruler’s advantage—producing a society of people trained to embrace the status quo no matter how badly it reams them. Sound familiar? It is, as is the best of all possible satire, wildly funny, dazzlingly agile, and fueled by deep-seated rage.
Leonard Bernstein’s operatic adaptation returns to New York this March, at the New York City Opera. It brings us the story of Candide, a naïve, fresh-faced young boy who falls in love with Cunegonde (the girl he has been raised with, as a brother) after observing their tutor Dr. Pangloss giving the maid an intensive, private lesson in experimental physics behind a nicely landscaped bush. Candide’s own adolescent groping gets him expelled from paradise: He is illegitimate, he is told, and thus unworthy of Cunegonde. Booted out, Candide begins his sweeping adventure around the globe, and with it the challenge to retain his optimism, despite the seemingly contradictory nature of his real-world findings.
Bernstein’s brilliant, light, yet soaring score serves as a counterbalance to the unsentimentally grotesque world of the play. Much to his credit, he keeps us humming along to his delightful music, as the lyrics reveal a world of senseless massacres, multiple rapes, turn-on-a-dime betrayals, and of course abundant lechery, pillaging, and usury. Structurally, he mimics the irony that holds the satire together—the light tone reflects Candide’s inner optimism, while the book and lyrics show us the savagery of the outer world. Candide remains an innocent; with a clear conscience, he switches sides of battles and arguments, bodies fall around him, people reveal their weaknesses and faults to his unseeing eyes, as, with his chin up, he trudges forward with the noble distant goal of recovering his true love: Cunegonde.
Candide’s blindness—to the world itself and to any kind of moral code of self-governance—is particularly striking. It is certainly the dominant quality of Voltaire’s satire, but it is just as surely a theme that resonated with the opera’s first adaptors, who began work in the heat of McCarthy’s HUAC trials. The left-leaning playwright Lillian Hellman first wrote the book for Candide—and Dorothy Parker contributed some lyrics—although over time and many rewrites, they have both fallen off the list of credits. (In this version, the book is credited to Hugh Wheeler, with lyrics by poet Richard Wilbur.) In the midst of working on the original adaptation, Hellman was called upon (and refused) to testify for HUAC, along with her companion, writer Daschiell Hammett, and she issued her now-famous, widely published letter stating: “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.” A Candide she most defiantly was not.
Candide, March 4 – 19, New York City Opera. Tickets: $27 – 98. Music by Leonard Bernstein; book by Hugh Wheeler; lyrics by Richard Wilbur; additional lyrics by Leonard Bernstein, John Latouche, and Stephen Sondheim; orchestrations by Hershy Kay and Leonard Bernstein; additional orchestrations by John Mauceri; conductor: George Manahan; production: Harold Prince; stage director: Arthur Masella. For more info: www.nycopera.com or (212) 870-5630.