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Bernstein’s genius flowers at Bard

by Kevin T. McEneaney
Mon Feb 27th, 2017

Danika Felty and Eric Finbarr Carey

Leonard Bernstein labored on a musical version of Voltaire’s Candide for over thirty years in three versions, the last one in 1989 being definitive. This lengthy operetta in the hands of Bard College’s performers under the baton of James Bagwell (depicted in teaser photo) became an incandescent masterpiece. Bard College’s semi-staged production last Saturday might (amid a tempest that made arrival difficult) was smoothly paced with on-spot theatrical timing, well-played music from the Bard College Symphonic Orchestra, and a chorus of about a hundred members of the Bard College Chamber Singers, and outstanding soloists from the Bard College Conservatory Graduate Vocal Arts Program under direction of Michael Hofman was stunning in its brilliance, humor, and overall gestalt. That this is Hofman’s directorial debut is an astonishing accomplishment. Hofman’s succinct comment on Candide is that “Bernstein brings you on a journey through musical time and space that all somehow remains very distinctly his own, tongue-in-cheek and winking.” Among Bernstein’s many notable compositions, his Candide stands near the apex.

James Bagwell’s conducting of the chorus was magnificent. The large chorus added impressive impact to the libretto and offered wider social implications on how the central plot concerning the two star-plagued lovers carries wider social significance.  

Tenor Eric Finbarr Carey, a Walter W. Naumburg International Vocal Competition 2014 winner, in the role of ever-optimistic Candide, was resonant, mellifluous, and deft with dramatic nuance. The famous “Glitter and Be Gay” solo (perhaps the most fiendishly difficult run in all of opera with its high E-flats) was nailed with exuberant aplomb by Danika Felty in a stunning tour-de-force performance. Nathaniel Sullivan as Voltaire/Pangloss/Martin supplied dramatic panache with his amusing and enthusiastic phrasing of the prose parts of the libretto. Luke Macmillan as Maximilian was suave, debonair, and convincing as a villain. Elaine Daiber as gypsy Paquette invigorated the role with zest as she sang in high gear, especially in her duo with dynamic Felty.

The overall effect of hearing an operetta sung in such clear English was a special pleasure since each word was distinct in its musical adornment.

Throughout this comic, synoptic version of Voltaire’s novella, the libretto’s self-conscious jokes highlight the wandering absurdity of Voltaire’s ridiculous plot, which satirized the then-popular picaresque form, as well as fundamentalist optimism, and Christian persecution of innocents over “heresy.”  Despite the brutal humor of Voltaire’s unrelenting cynicism, the final climatic chorus somehow conveyed a message of hope, which may be one of the few transformative, cathartic moments in operatic comedy. Despite the rampage of cynicism, one left the performance with lilting smile.

I cannot recall such a long-standing audience ovation at the conclusion of a performance at Sosnoff Theater.