When John Riesen heard he would be playing the title character in Candide for the 2018 season for Chautauqua Opera Company, he immediately wanted to call Rebekah Howell.
“I was told that my friend Rebekah would be cast as Cunegonde,” said Riesen, a Young Artist. “I was itching at the bit to call her, but I didn’t want to ruin the surprise.”
Instead, he sent her a text: “Are you playing Cunegonde?”
As soon as he asked, Howell knew she would be performing alongside her friend in Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, and she screamed with excitement.
Howell and Riesen’s friendship is similar to Candide and Cunegonde’s relationship: Riesen and Howell were first Chautauqua Opera Young Artists in 2014, they went their separate ways and now are back at Chautauqua playing an on-stage couple.
The story of Candide is about lovers who get separated, and despite the hardships they go through, find a way to be together.
“It just makes the experience wonderful because sometimes you do things like this and you don’t know anybody, and the chemistry is not that great,” Riesen said.
“And sometimes you’re real old buds, and you’re just having a real good time,” Howell said.
Chautauqua Opera will present the comedic opera Candide at 4 p.m. Friday, July 27, in Norton Hall. The production is one in more than a thousand performances taking place throughout the world to celebrate the centenary of Bernstein’s birth.
The script for Candide has undergone transformations over the years. The work first premiered on Broadway as a musical in December 1956. Its run lasted two months, with a total of 73 performances. Since then, people have tried to rewrite the script to match Bernstein’s musical talent.
Stage director Jay Lesenger, former director of Chautauqua Opera, stayed away from the piece for a while because of its “problematic” script.
Additionally, Candide is based on the novel by Voltaire, who uses literary humor instead of situational. That can be hard to translate into a staged version, Lesenger said.
“I always thought that the more literal these different versions tried to be to Voltaire, in some ways, the farther it got away from Bernstein’s music,” Lesenger said. “Bernstein took Voltaire as a launching pad to really fill this piece with really great musical theater choices.”
The original script was written by Lillian Hellman, a playwright known for dramas. Hellman refused to let Harold Prince use her script when he tried to revive Candide in the ’70s. Prince reworked the script and made it more serious but didn’t solve the issues.
There was only one version Lesenger thought fixed the problems: a semi-staged version by Lonny Price, performed by the New York Philharmonic in 2004 featuring Kristin Chenoweth and Patti LuPone. Lesenger, with permission from the Bernstein estate, staged this version for the first time at Palm Beach Opera in February.
“I saw the video of that (2004 performance) in my research, and I went, ‘Oh my gosh, this is great. This is funny,’” Lesenger said. “It moves, and it’s everything I think Candide should be. It matches the music.”
This version features the same slew of characters. Returning guest artists Robert Orth and Leann Sandel-Pantaleo will portray Pangloss/Voltaire and The Old Lady, respectively. Orth has worked with other directors on Candide before, one of which called it a “magnificent mess,” he said.
“It’s a huge mess. Everybody tries to fix it, and everybody thinks they’ve fixed it, and it’s OK,” Orth said. “The point is the music is glorious, the story is timeless, and so we just do a different version.”
Chautauqua Opera’s version goes back to its musical theater roots and features some choreographed dance scenes.
The characters in Candide travel all around the world, and dance choreographer Mara Newbery Greer said there are many styles of dance in this production. There is a Spanish-inspired section, a Paris waltz and even some cheerleading-like moves.
Greer worked with Lesenger on Candide in February, and this is her second time choreographing the opera.
“(Bernstein’s) musicianship is stunning. There is a reason his stuff has stood the tests of time and why it has been around as long as it has,” Greer said. “Before I even hear a lyric, his music can inform a story and tell you how to feel. You know where we’re at emotionally just with the music.”
When Lesenger premiered this version at Palm Beach Opera, Bernstein’s daughter Nina Bernstein Simmons, watched the performance. Lesenger said she loved it, and he hopes to make this version available to other companies to use.
“I’ve seen it in the opera house. The score is always fabulous, and the audience always loves the music, but it just got longer and longer, frankly,” Lesenger said. “That’s why I like this version because it gets back more to the musical theater roots and away from the ‘opera house’ version. I think that’s why it works so well.”