Was there ever a medium more perfectly aligned than musical comedy to Dr. Pangloss’s maxim that we live in “the best of all possible worlds”? With its harmonious melodies, unexpected but nevertheless satisfying rhyme schemes, and inevitable reconciliation of lovers, the musical comedy—whether opera buffa or Broadway—is at its core an expression of faith in the goodness, or at least intelligibility, of the world. On a narrative level, we’re all but guaranteed a happy ending; our “A” and “B” couples alike are joyfully reunited. The obstacles our characters face, far from being indicative of any malice in the world order, are in fact “for the best”: They are what keep the wheels of the plot turning to our satisfaction. Lyrically, every couplet ends perfectly, rhythmically, and with the neat closure of the appropriate rhyme scheme.
All of which makes a musical-comedy adaptation of the ferociously rationalist French philosopher Voltaire’s 1759 novel Candide—from which Dr. Pangloss springs—such a perfect fit. Equal parts light opera and brutal savaging thereof, Candide—with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics primarily by Richard Wilbur (other contributors include Stephen Sondheim and Dorothy Parker)—derives most of its bitter humor from the juxtaposition of its painfully idealistic characters and the increasingly horrifying nature of their situations. Instead of love triangles, devious servants, and comic misunderstandings—classic staples of the genre—we have war, slavery, genocide, and (plenty of) rape. And Candide and his plucky compatriots sing hopeful ditties through it all. Voltaire would have been proud.
When Voltaire’s original was written in 1759, the world—at least through its author’s acerbic gaze—seemed like a bleak, if not imminently apocalyptic, place. The Seven Years’ War was ongoing, dragging nearly every great European power into a maelstrom of absurd atrocity. The 1755 earthquake of Lisbon—to this day one of the deadliest in history—had annihilated up to 100,000 people overnight. And German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz—to Voltaire’s mind, anyway—believed it was all for the best.
This is, of course, a simplification. Leibniz’s optimism was rooted in metaphysics: If a divine being is both all-powerful, all knowing, and all loving (and if we as Christian metaphysicians must hold all three things to be true), the world that such a God creates must be, if not perfect, nevertheless the least imperfect option available to God. If the world was the “best of all possible worlds,” it wasn’t because it was a paradise in disguise but rather because no better world was possible: a perspective less optimistic than resigned. The reason for these limitations, Leibniz argued, wasn’t God but human nature: our own corruptibility, our own proclivities, and our own free will allowed evil to flourish. Yet, Leibniz argued, it is only by experiencing evil and suffering in the world that we human beings might learn to improve.
For Voltaire, though, Leibniz’s famous maxim that this is the “best of all possible worlds” was an insult: a deliberate minimization of the intensity of human suffering. How much absurdity do we have to face, Voltaire asks us, a full century before Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov angrily vows to “give back the ticket” to God, before we finally are willing to acknowledge that it cannot, must not, possibly be for the best, that no ideation of human perfection legitimizes the misery of the present?
Thus was Candide born. The story of the eponymous protagonist, hailing from the kingdom of Westphalia, his Leibnizian professor of “métaphysico-théologo-cosmology” Pangloss, and his neverending litany of woes (faced, always, with the chipper certainty that Westphalia is the best of all possible places in the best of all possible worlds, Candide puts its hero (and his beloved, the ingenue Cunégonde) through every travail imaginable, before they ultimately resign themselves to the conclusion that the only vague modicum of satisfaction in this life can be obtained through honest toil: the cultivation, as it were, of one’s own garden.
It’s bleak. But it’s also—in Voltaire’s novel and in City Opera’s latest revived production directed by the legendary Hal Prince at Jazz at Lincoln Center—incredibly, often transgressively, funny.
Are we meant to sympathize with the impossibly joyful ingénue protagonists (played masterfully, with wide eyes and puppy-dog earnestness, by Jay Armstrong John and Meghan Picerno, each outdoing the other in sheer commitment), or laugh at them? From the first, Candide’s faith in the power of his harmonious world is at once patently ridiculous and yet, half-touchingly, preserved in the neatness of Bernstein’s meters:
Life is happiness indeed:
Mares to ride and books to read.
Though of noble birth I’m not,
I’m delighted with my lot.
Though I’ve no distinctive features
And I’ve no official mother,
I love all my fellow creatures
And the creatures love each other!
Throughout the initial scenes that follow, especially the duet “Oh, Happy We”, it is made plain by the tension between music and lyrics that our lovers’ genuine unity of affection doesn’t extend to their ambitions. Candide wants a simple life (“peas and cabbages”); Cunégonde wants “ropes of pearls.” Caught up in the lulling music, it’s easy to forget—or be made to ignore, as the lovers themselves do—that the quickness of the rhymes, the ease with which the lovers finish one another’s meters, doesn’t quite line up with the words our characters are actually singing. We hum and nod along in agreement, glossing over the fact that Candide and Cunégonde are fundamentally incompatible.
That juxtaposition only gets more intense as the production goes on. Candide is exiled for daring to vault above his station by loving Cunégonde; then war comes to Westphalia, and everyone in sight, Cunégonde included, is (seemingly) slaughtered (more on that later), raped, and tortured; Candide is briefly conscripted, arrested for heresy by a Grand Inquisitor, and almost burned at the stake.
The irony, of course, is that this is the best of all possible worlds—at least, as far as the audience is concerned. Candide and his compatriots may not need suffering and evil in order to perfect themselves, as Leibniz might have it, but they certainly need plenty of juicy conflict to keep us, the audience, entertained and in suspense. (This dynamic is nicely paralleled on a meta-level within the operetta itself: It takes nearly the whole show for the mysterious Old Woman, played with arch professional camp by Linda Lavin, to explain to her enthralled companions why she only has one buttock, and even then her vagueness makes them, and us, all the more intrigued.)
Through all the suffering, though, the music remains lively; the lyrics blithe. Only in the caustic pastel of Candide could there be a celebratory group number praising the burning of heretics in an Auto-da-fé (“what a day!”). The natural buoyancy of buffa also allows us sufficient distance to appreciate the sheer, unmitigated horror of living. The very forced nature of the ascription of meaning (and melody) to what our characters go through only makes us more convinced, at the end, that there probably isn’t any.
Maintaining the proper amount of distance is a tricky task, however. Candide is told within the clever framing device of narration by Voltaire himself (a virtuosic and exhausting Gregg Edelman, who also plays Pangloss, the Sage, and several smaller comic roles while throwing himself repeatedly through the fourth wall). Though the very nature of Candide as a Brechtian play-within-a-play ensures we never feel the characters’ pain too deeply, so does the sheer impermanence of death in Candide’s universe: Most characters experience seemingly certain death at least once in the operetta (this morphs almost seamlessly from plot device to running gag). The world is horrible, Candide implies, but it might not be that bad after all.
Yet harder to handle narratively is the question of rape. In recent years, the use of rape as a plot device—and, in particular, a comic plot device—has become a fraught question. In such a context, the story of Cunégonde’s war-time rape (or, as Voltaire puts it, the use of her “natural function”), followed by her descent into prostitution-by-necessity to a lascivious Jew and a no-less lascivious Catholic Inquisitor, feels like perhaps the riskiest thing one could put on a stage. In the space of three verses within Cunégonde’s coloratura aria in praise of her expensive lifestyle, she goes from “Had I remained beside my lady mother/my virtue had remained unstained/Until my maiden hand was gained/by some Grand Duke or other” to “I have no strong objection to champagne”). One might be forgiven for feeling a little bit ambiguous about Bernstein and company’s treatment of Cunégonde’s plight.
Yet somehow it works. Whether it’s the sheer exuberant ridiculousness of Picerno’s performance, or the collective power of Candide’s world-building, we never forget for a moment that the reason every single comic beat in Candide is funny is precisely because its characters refuse, no matter what, to recognize what we already know deep down: If this is the best of all possible worlds, we too should probably throw back the ticket.
Candide isn’t perfect. By late in the second act, the horrors stop seeming quite so horrible; there’s an episodic nature to each misadventure that denudes the linear intensity of Candide’s and Cunégonde’s journey back to one another; the repeated pattern of each new plot point (a death turns out to have been a misunderstanding! Our plucky heroes escape just in time! Another crisis separates the lovers!) starts to feel like a Saturday morning cartoon.
But in the end City Opera’s wildly successful production of Candide is at its best when it, along with Cunégonde, asks us to “look how bravely I conceal/the dreadful, dreadful shame I feel” with a “Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!”