Several years after New York City’s Opera’s departure from Lincoln Center with bankruptcy looming in the near future, the company is back onstage. It kicks off 2017 with a new production of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, one of the most beloved scores in its repertory, directed by Broadway superstar Hal Prince. It’s both a strong and safe choice for the company’s first full season under new leadership: a crowd-pleaser of a show and a gemstone from the company’s history, in a new production by City Opera stalwart Prince, one of the leading lights of the New York theater. After its past few years, “strong and safe” is precisely what City Opera needs most, at least for now.
The lively new production is set on a vaudeville stage that brims with color, and Prince has assembled an all-star cast of Broadway actors, along with a few more traditional operatic singers of the caliber one expects from Lincoln Center. Despite vocally uneven results, the show radiates a high level of quality that recalls the now bygone Broadway of Prince’s past, before all the Disney and jukebox musicals moved in.
Adapted from Voltaire’s 1759 novella, Candide follows its titular youth who, exiled from his home in German Westphalia, traverses the globe seeking his long-lost love Cunegonde. Throughout their travels, the two take comfort in the specious optimism of their childhood tutor, Dr. Pangloss — Voltaire’s caricature of the German baroque philosopher Leibniz — who taught them, against all evidence to the contrary, that they inhabit “The Best of All Possible Worlds.”
As the title character, Jay Armstrong Johnson (known for his recurring role on the ABC series Quantico) grows into his role vocally over the course of the evening. His tenor is clear and light, with a tight and tremulous vibrato, but it struggles through some of the more demanding, expansive passages in Bernstein’s score. Still, he plays the part with brightness, sincerity, and good comic timing.
He manages to hold his own throughout the show against City Opera newcomer Meghan Picerno, in the role of Cunegonde. Picerno sets the audience ablaze with her Act One showstopper, “Glitter and Be Gay,” one of the most challenging and delightful coloratura arias in the canon. The song was written to showcase an extraordinary young voice — powerful, agile, wide-ranging — and beyond all doubt, Picerno’s got it.
Broadway veteran Gregg Edelman leads the company energetically in the demanding dual role of Voltaire and Pangloss; he’s joined by musical theater luminaries Chip Zien, Brooks Ashmanskas, and Jessica Tyler Wright in a handful of smaller parts. The Tony-Award-winning actress Linda Lavin is a more convincing comic actor than singer in the unforgettable supporting role of an Old Lady with one buttock. Rounding out the principal cast is Keith Phares, who wields a muscular, resonant baritone in the role of Cunegonde’s pretty and supercilious brother, Maxmilian.
Somewhere between operetta and musical comedy, Candide’s history mirrors its protagonist’s picaresque journey: It flopped at its Broadway premiere in 1956, but underwent numerous revivals and rewrites over the 1970s and ‘80s, leading to an “opera house version” that debuted at City Opera under Prince’s direction in 1982 to great acclaim.
Under the baton of Prince’s son, the conductor Charles Prince, the City Opera Orchestra interprets Leonard Bernstein’s score with richness, verve, and only a few missteps. (The Act One overture felt uniformly rushed and frantic.) The chorus soared to superb heights, particularly in finale “Make Our Garden Grow,” in which the characters abandon the traps of Panglossian optimism and dedicate themselves to the same project that City Opera faces in its new chapter: Building a new life through hard work.
Candide runs through January 15 at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater.