skip to Main Content

From the page to the opera scene: “Candide” by Voltaire and Bernstein illustrates (the best of) all possible worlds

“Page to Opera Stage” examines stories – real or fictional, old and new – that have inspired operas, and how those stories have been edited and dramatized to fit a new medium. This month we look at Voltaire’s 18th century satirical novel “Candide”, which inspired Leonard Bernstein’s 20th century masterpiece.

The prolific production of the French historian, philosopher, satirist and poet François-Marie Arouet – better known by the name he used to evade censorship, Voltaire – is almost heartbreaking. Throughout the middle of the 18th century, he gained many followers and more enemies through his criticism of the Catholic Church and his belief in freedom of speech and the separation of church and religion. State. Ahead of its time in more ways than one, it’s no surprise that his most famous novel remains readable and accessible in the 21st century.

The success of “Candide” (first published in 1759) was due to unauthorized copies and translations, as state and church censorship curtailed many attempts at official publication. Nevertheless, its popularity led to several additions authorized by Voltaire, including a 1761 version with substantial additions. After this last version was included in Cramer’s anthology of the philosopher’s works in 1775, it became the definitive text.

“Candide” follows its titular hero from an illegitimate but comfortable upbringing in a fictional barony of Westphalia. Banished for his love of the beautiful heiress Cunégonde, he experiences a litany of near-death experiences as he strives to find his beloved – who is in even worse shape. But as both were taught by the indestructible Doctor Pangloss, because this world is the only world, it must be the best of all possible worlds. Eventually, after several continents of adventures, murders, mutilations, rapes and scams, they are reunited and can live quietly – perhaps happily – forever.

“Candide” combines the serious themes of a bildungsroman with the fast and erratic world of a picaresque novel, drawing the best qualities from two popular genres of the day. He deals with dark and knotty subject matter in an incongruous and simple way, making the litany of abuse almost daily but never trivialized. “Gulliver’s Travels” by Jonathan Swift, who predates “Candide” by 33 years, seems to have been influential in Voltaire’s writing, and a satirical skepticism of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s insistence on God’s benevolence in all situations and difficulties informs the political bent of the book. This disagreement is worked through Voltaire’s own reactions to the Seven Years’ War and the Lisbon earthquake and fire of 1755, which killed between 12,000 and 50,000 people. It’s hard to reconcile such a senseless death with a benevolent Creator – and Voltaire, true to his free-thinking mentality, leaves that distinction up to the reader ultimately.This combination of irreverence, timeless relevance and opportunities for dramatic invention captivated American conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein.

His first attempt at “Candide”, with a libretto by blacklisted screenwriter Lillian Hellman, premiered in 1956 – just under 200 years since the novel’s publication. Its reception was mixed, largely because of an overly serious libretto. Bernstein revisited the work over the following decades, refining the music and libretto with each revival.

In 1974, Bernstein returned to the project in earnest with a new book by Hugh Wheeler, which approached Voltaire’s original novel while necessarily condensing some of Candide’s exploits and misfortunes (a necessity for a light-hearted piece that felt like operetta rather than an epic convoluted piece). A host of librettists joined in the adaptation efforts – the main credit goes to Richard Wilbur, but John Latouche, Dorothy Parker, Lillian Hellman, Stephen Sondheim, John Mauceri, John Wells and Bernstein himself. Surprisingly, the result isn’t an “too many cooks” scenario – the words, drawn largely from Voltaire, propel the story forward convincingly and retain the author’s original levity.

In 1988 a production was launched at Scottish Opera and performed the following year in London which saw Bernstein’s intentions for the work performed. This version is largely the one made today.

With such a checkered novel and a convoluted production and editing history, it’s pointless to examine every difference in “Candide.” Instead, three key areas will be examined.

On-stage narration

Voltaire’s voice is strong throughout his novel; By turns sardonic, cheeky, and surprisingly sincere, he guides the reader through Candide’s extravagant and outrageous adventures in an almost professional manner. This factual storytelling contrasted with the larger-than-life coincidences and tragedies that plague Candide cements the author’s lucid mockery of religious, governmental, and social institutions while portraying his characters with sympathy, not sentimentality.

Any version of “Candide” without this narration would feel hollowed out, and Bernstein retains that signature vocals by giving the lead baritone the dual role of Pangloss and Voltaire himself. The performer opens up as an author and transforms at times into a somehow indestructible teacher.

Conjugating Voltaire and Pangloss is fun through a historical lens, considering that Voltaire was satirically refute the The Leibnizian optimism that Pangloss personifies. However, it makes for fantastic theatre; Pangloss’ reasoning that ensuing disasters and cruelties must always be “the best of all possible worlds” is continually contrasted with the scenic action, making the dramatic irony soar sky-high.

O musicalnot a word

Voltaire casts Candide as the laughable optimist at the start of the story, the man who cannot see reality as it is until the world beats him down with its brutality and foolishness. This portrait evolves as Candide develops a more rational and realistic vision, mixing optimism and fatalism. It’s a gently mocking portrait that keeps readers sympathetic to the unfortunate hero.

Bernstein maintains this view with the help of Voltaire/Pangloss narration. It also musically captures its hero’s fundamental state of disagreement with the world. Candide often sings the harmonies – most often the dominant fifth – while other characters sing the tonics. At the end of “The Best of All Possible Worlds” (a quintet built around C major), Candide sings the final note on G while the other three students – Cunégonde, Paquette and Maximillian – sing on C. Candide’s confident optimism shines through the tenor line, while his slightly more worldly comrades with clearly defined social positions blend in neat tonic harmony.

Grow our garden

The endings of each version of “Candide” have different ratings. Bernstein’s two operas radically condense the post-Venetian portions of Voltaire’s novel and remove Orientalized stereotypes in the characters encountered as Candide, Cunégonde and Pangloss settle into a quieter life. But it is a necessary theatrical condensation; Cunégonde’s role provides different functionality. In the novel, she does not scam Candide in Venice, having traveled to Istanbul by Candide’s arrival at the Carnival. By the time the two reunite, Cunégonde is portrayed as hideously ugly but Maximillian still forbids her to marry anyone who is not of noble birth. Candide, driven by a grudge, marries her regardless, and the couple continue their quest for meaning and meaning in life. His revelation that they must “grow our garden” is spurred on in response to Pangloss and his conversations with their new neighbors in their boring, but perfectly normal, new lives.

In the opera, Candide’s disillusionment is immediately triggered by a masked Cunegonde who tries to swindle him of his last money in Venice (to Cunegonde’s defense, Candide is also masked so she ignores her target!). This leads to a period of reflection on the part of the hero – a week of silence in the revised 1989 “Final Revised Version”. This betrayal is the ultimate linchpin of Candide’s worldview, casting both optimism and pessimism through a realistic lens where hard work and effort in the face of random cruelties is the way forward. Only then can he ask Cunégonde to marry him.

“‘Candide’ is only a ‘Hamlet’ and a half long,” says Philip Littel in his introduction to the 1918 translation. This delightful observation belies the great emotional depth of each work, and the breath of events and of Places by Candide certainly outclasses many novels many times its length. Bernstein’s necessary condensation for lyrical form nevertheless maintains these themes, explorations and satire at the heart of Voltaire’s timeless tragicomedy. Although Pangloss’s theory doesn’t hold water in practice, a world where we have two great versions of this little tale could indeed be considered the best of all possible worlds.

Although there are many English translations of Voltaire, a public domain translation of “Candide” is available at Project Gutenberg. Wilbur’s revised libretto employed by Bernstein, along with a book by Wheeler, is available at music bookstores and libraries.

Back To Top