Voltaire comes home with an American accent

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer and critic with special interest in piano. He spent nine years on the board of the London International Piano Competition and has written extensively on music for leading publications, including the International New York Times, Clavier Companion, The Washington Times, American Spectator, International Piano and the website Facts & Arts. He spent four years in Moscow as a correspondent and also worked as a journalist in Paris, London and New York. 28.01.2017

The Leonard Bernstein incidental music for Voltaire’s Candide seems even fresher today than it did 60 years ago when it flopped on Broadway. Over time the production has been reworked, massaged and matured, and now is finding remarkable popularity in the United States and around the world. As musicals go, it is vintage New York – with creative staging, energetic choreography, acting/singing by a large cast, and of course Bernstein’s scintillating score.

Leonard Bernstein, by Michael Johnson

Candide played recently in Toulouse and Bordeaux over a period of one month, closing its successful run Thursday (Jan. 26). The entire production was in English with French surtitles. To me, the irony of hearing Candide narrated in English in front of French audiences was obvious but no one seemed to object. The French know the story by heart anyway. 

The Voltaire satire was perfect for Bernstein’s sense of musical theater. His song-writing excelled in this work and his orchestration of the overture was nothing short of brilliant. Other orchestrators were brought in to handle the rest of the music and with equal artistry. Bernstein’s genius is evident in this recording, conducted by himself:


The original libretto by the late Lillian Hellman was the basis for the project but the actual lyrics – so clever and so pungent – were rewritten and polished by about a dozen subsequent New York talents. This road version was a complex co-production of the U.S. Glimmerglass Festival, the Toulouse Théâtre du Capitole and l’Opera National de Bordeaux. The actors and singers were mostly Americans imported for the tour. 

The classically trained U.S. veteran actor Wynn Harmon played Voltaire, narrating the philosophy and the action with 18th century panache, right to the end of the two and one-half hour production when he addresses the audience with the joke, “Any questions?” The American baritone Andrew Stenson, a veteran of major operatic roles, portrayed Candide to perfection, and Ashley Emerson, a young U.S. star with a long string of operatic credits, was at ease in the acting and singing demands of Cunegonde.

This production originated at the Glimmerglass Festival, Cooperstown, New York, and showed no sign of concessions to French-language audiences or the importance of Candide in the French academic curriculum. The narration, by Hellman, followed Voltaire’s original text. 

Candidecan be enjoyed passively for its memorable music or more actively for the sharp satire of society in Voltaire’s time. Few listeners – certainly in the United States – would understand three-quarters of the humor. 

Voltaire dashed off the original novella in a few days in 1759 when he was 64 years old and he spent the rest of his long life dismissing it as a mere bagatelle. Yet he knew it would be condemned by the royal authorities in France, and therefore he never openly acknowledge authorship. Readers who were able to obtain it under the counter recognized Voltaire’s impious and indecent voice, however, and in his lifetime it was reprinted more than 20 times. The story takes on German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and others who believed that optimism was justified because God was a benevolent force. The violence of the story proves otherwise.

Candide was a character in the style of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver, an innocent abroad. Large themes denounce the authoritarianism of both church and state – slavery, sex, torture, oppression, and the existence of God as a force in the world. This was dynamite between two covers. Scholars believe Voltaire drew inspiration from Gulliver’s Travels, also controversial in its day. 

The modern French audiences responded to Bernstein’s music as much as to Lillian Hellman’s book.  Some of the songs have become international standards, notably Cunegonde’s lament  “Glitter and be Gay”, as in this version sung by Natalie Dessay:


One of the most memorable songs from the production is “Auto-da-Fé”, which includes the satirical line “What a day, what a day for an auto-da-fé,” attributed to lyricist John Latouche. Others who added memorable touches to the lyrics were Dorothy Parker, Stephen Sondheim and Richard Wilbur. 

Director of this production, Francesca Zambello, has worked previously with the Toulouse and Bordeaux opera companies. She said in response to my query that she had worked for many years with Thierry Fouquet, former General Manager of Bordeaux, and Frédéric Chambert, former Artistic Director of Toulouse. “I told them The Glimmerglass Festival was producing the Bernstein piece and they were very interested in bringing Voltaire back home! Frédéric and Thierry have both since left their posts, but we worked closely with the incoming management to present this successful run.”

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