BWW Review: Pointer-Counterpoint – City Opera's CANDIDE vs. Prototype's BREAKING THE WAVES

Left to right: CANDIDE's Keith Phares, Jessica Tyler
Wright, Linda Lavin, Jay Armstrong Johnson,
Meghan Picerno and sheep. Photo: Sarah Shatz

When I saw that New York City Opera was doing Leonard Bernstein's CANDIDE at the same time as New York's Prototype Festival--with Missy Mazzoli's BREAKING THE WAVES opening the festival of opera-theatre and music-theatre on the same night--I thought that it was great counter-programming. After all, what could be further from Mazzoli's brilliant but grim gem than Bernstein's comic masterpiece--proving there's more than one way to skin a music theatre piece?

Kiera Duffy and John Moore in BREAKING THE
WAVES. Photo: Nicholas Korkos

As it turned out, the two works have more than a little in common--besides providing great evenings of musiktheatre in their current incarnations--starting with smart librettos by Hugh Wheeler (CANDIDE) and Royce Vavrek (WAVES) that are key to the success of their evenings.

The librettos

CANDIDE won a Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical, 1974, for Wheeler's take on Voltaire as part of Hal Prince's team that brought the musical back from the dead (its original book was by playwright Lillian Hellman) and later adapted it for the "opera house" version--really an operetta--that the old City Opera first did in 1982 and its successor continues to do.

WAVES librettist Vavrek adapted the Lars van Trier film of the same name, which had haunted him since childhood, into a wholly different animal, chilling and utterly marvelous, for its world premiere at Opera Philadelphia last September. It was co-commissioned by the company and Beth Morrison Projects, co-producer of Prototype (with HERE, the arts enterprise).

The philosophy

CANDIDE and WAVES also share a driving force that derives from the German philosopher Liebniz's supposition that "all is for the best in this the best of all possible worlds," though neither of them really accepts its validity. CANDIDE's, of course, was turned on its ear by Voltaire in the satire that's the basis of the operetta, showing that all is not necessarily for the best in what is surely not the best of all possible worlds.

As for BREAKING THE WAVES, it comes down quite heavily on the Calvinist philosophy on the Isle of Wyte, where the opera takes place, and its view that emphasizes the grace of God and the doctrine of predestination. In other words, whether or not this is the best of all possible worlds, this is what God gave live with it.

The sopranos

Perhaps the greatest commonality of the two operas, however, is that they provide great music for the sopranos who star. Although some productions of CANDIDE--including the 1982 premiere at City Opera--cast entirely (or almost) from the opera world, this production leans heavily on Broadway. The major opera voice in the cast was the role of Cunegonde, Candide's beloved, sung gorgeously and wittily by soprano Meghan Picerno. Picerno, who I first heard as Lucia di Lammermoor last year at the Regina Opera in Brooklyn, sang a blazing "Glitter and Be Gay" that stands up with the best. (Baritone Keith Phares did well as Cunegonde's brother, the blowhard Maximillian.)

WAVES' starring role, Bess McNeill, was sung with authority, gleaming tone and great humanity (and more than a little insanity) by soprano Keira Duffy, who originated the role last fall in Philadelphia. It is a stunning but grueling role--and a long one--and she never faltered for a moment in her brilliance.

(I wonder what it would be like for Duffy and Picerno to switch roles?)

The music

The original cast recording of Bernstein's music kept CANDIDE alive even when the show was considered unproducible. The current production brings out all its strong points, from the lively Overture through to the final "Let Our Garden Grow," in a more subdued, subtle version than City Opera previously used, fitting with these unsettled times. The music also provided room for hilarious, well-sung turns from Gregg Edelman (Dr. Pangloss), Jay Armstrong Johnson (Candide), Linda Lavin (the Old Lady), Jessica Tyler Wright (Paquette), Chip Zien and Brooks Ashmankas (the latter two in multiple roles).

In WAVES, Duffy's voice soared in some of Mazzoli's most tantalizing music--the brilliant arias, "His Name is Jan" and "The Map of Jan's Body"--in an unforgettable performance. But the composer's wonderful score--under the sure baton of Julian Wachner leading the NOVUS NY ensemble--and libretto also provided great opportunities for the other principals in the cast. These included baritone John Moore (pulling off the dramatically difficult role of Jan, immobile for much of the opera), mezzo Eve Gigliotti (an outstanding performance as Dodo, Bess's sister-in-law) and tenor Dominic Armstrong (a sturdy, well sung Dr. Richardson). I wished that bass Matthew Curran--an addition to the cast since the premiere--had more to do as Terry, Jan's friend from the oil rig where he was injured, because he brought some well-needed humor to the proceedings, along with a sensitive side. Also welcome to the production was the warm mezzo Theodora Hanslowe (Bess's mother) in a most unsympathetic role.

Mazzoli showed her wide-ranging skills as a composer, with her brilliant orchestral and chorus writing that could be, by turns, spiky and atonal or melodic and soulful. They were wonderfully rendered by the NOVUS NY players along with members of the Opera Philadelphia Chorus and the Choir of Trinity Church Wall Street (where Wachner is Music Director). The chorus had double duty, first as the cold-hearted parishioners who dominate the island (with the excellent baritone Marcus DeLoach as the Minister), then playing a variety of other roles.

The productions

With Hal Prince at the helm--for the umpteenth time since his resurrection of CANDIDE in 1973--and choreography by Pat Birch, the show was in very good hands. The playful designs of Clarke Dunham, costumes by Judith Dolan, lighting by Ken Billington and sound by Abe Jacob do all they can to replicate in a proscenium the fun of Prince's original environmental production as done at BAM in Brooklyn and then on Broadway. The orchestra, under Charles Prince, and chorus kept things zipping along.

The stark production for WAVES, with sensational work from director James Darrah, couldn't have been further from "fun," though the uneven base of the scenic design by Adam Rigg kept everyone off-balance as if in a funhouse. If anything, the director's work seemed better here than at the premiere last fall, helping to mold the towering performance from Duffy and the overpowering gloom of life on the island. The physical production's towering walls are covered by Adam Larsen's atmospheric projections--sometimes seeming like a Rorschach test of Bess's mind--and the atmospheric lighting design of Pablo Santiago helped set the ever-darkening mood. The costume design by Chrisi Karvonides-Dushenko was a key tool in mapping Bess's decline and fall from grace.


BREAKING THE WAVES completed its three-performance run at the Prototype Festival on Monday. CANDIDE, at the Jazz from Lincoln Center Rose Theatre, Broadway and West 62 Street, continues through next weekend: January 11@7:30pm, 12@7:30pm, 13@7:30pm, 14@2pm, January 15@4pm. For ticket information.

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From This Author Richard Sasanow