The best (and worst) of all possible Lennys

candide-dp.jpgKelsey Grammer and Jack Swanson in LA Opera's 2018 production of "Candide." Photo: Ken Howard.

Yes, all the world loves Leonard Bernstein. And rightly so.

Who else composed in an haute Broadway idiom, as few others could, and yet was profoundly immersed in the European symphonic literature? Who else could also deliver from the podium a transcendent Beethoven, Strauss and Mahler that put the world at his feet? Who else, as explainer-in-chief, could seduce a whole generation with his ultra-engaging TV series, "Young People's Concerts"?

No surprise, then, that we're in the throes of celebrating what would be the 100th birthday of America's most famous music man. See for yourself, take a drive downtown.

There you would find both the LA Philharmonic and LA Opera starting off 2018 with two of his big-time works, "Mass" and "Candide." Now is the moment for a seeming orgy of Bernsteiniana. But none of this is to say that Lenny didn't over-reach, didn't throw out too big a net -- and so, didn't suffer his critical slings and arrows.

In the case of "Mass" (which drew such brutal invectives at its 1971 premiere as pretentious, schlock-ridden, gimmicky, crass) you can point to his unremittingly liberal heart. It was so full, protesting McCarthyism and war, for instance, that he stocked the stage with cavorting hordes of street people -- the disaffected, those who stood against society's establishment, its economic inequities and its hypocrisy.

What grist for his theatrical mill today would be! But sadly, the overload onstage easily swamped his grave musical realizations.

A paean and pageant that is rarely revived, with Disney Hall its terrific venue for this multi-tiered mounting, "Mass" follows the format of a Roman Catholic exercise. What we get is an amalgam of '60s hippiedom and all-purpose churchiness, with a passel of simplistic homilies, additional texts largely by Stephen Schwartz.

The Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel went all out in embrace of the piece; its purely orchestral/choral segments glowed under their sheer sonic and interpretive glory.

But I'm surprised that its now-dated realization -- with period bell-bottoms, beads, bandanas, shag cuts -- stayed intact. Bernstein searched out universal themes so why not an abstract, cleaner staging that allows more focus on the deceptively complex music and also achieves a sense of timelessness? After all, the theme is loss of faith, a term of the eternal human condition.

Apparently, director Elkhanah Pulitzer thought otherwise. So what she served up (as others have) was a tambourine crowd of singers, dancers, blues and gospel musicians, and a marching band that jumps into the polyphonic fray, à la Charles Ives -- all of them together in the Dona Nobis Pacem, a wildly spirited and movingly mournful moment that exploded into a rock n' roll scene with everyone jamming and swaying back and forth.

Along with all else, Lenny sought here to capture his vox populi issue. That he did, without doubt. The cast, led by bass-baritone Ryan McKinny as a versatile Celebrant who performed with exuberant/anguished conviction, drew its collective identities accurately. Unforgettable was a gorgeous off-stage soprano (taped), floridly decorating the "Kyrie Eleison's" vocal line.

Across the street from Disney, the Music Center Pavilion was alive with LA Opera's "Candide" -- Bernstein's ravishing hybrid of operetta and Broadway musical, his 1956 opus that also points a discerning path to human foibles. This time, with the help of 18th century philosopher Voltaire -- who, during the Enlightenment championed civil rights and satirized all forms of authoritarianism, including Christianity -- he had a bona fide hit.

Like "Mass," it too crouches in despair only to resurrect hope and faith at the end. Yet here he gives us mock but sweet idealism ("the best of all possible worlds") and mock misery, sometimes alternated with a sincere sense of loss -- before arriving at its bravely optimistic conclusion "to do the best we know and make our garden grow."

As other versions have done, LA Opera's current incarnation by John Caird/Francesca Zambello sends folks home whistling its deliriously lovable tunes and reciting its devilishly witty lyrics (courtesy of such paragons as Sondheim, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, Bernstein himself, et al).

"Candide" does still have its flaws (especially with the original Hugh Wheeler book) -- even after being tweaked and edited and added to and re-written ad infinitum through the years. But it gives back so very much; the music enchants us with its extravagant ballads, dancing patter songs, delicious waltzes, insinuating tangos, baubly coloratura, grandly spirited big numbers and masterly orchestrations.

If only the spoken recitations of this picaresque odyssey did not go on and on, like a shaggy dog tale covering every bad happenstance in every part of the world. Yet the music triumphs.

So thank James Conlon and his orchestra for their rich handling of a sublime score. And don't forget the glitteriest and gayest Cunegonde of Erin Morley or the sweet-voiced Candide of Jack Swanson. Or the perfectly credible sooth-sayer Voltaire/Pangloss of Kelsey Grammer or the homesick Old Lady of Christine Ebersole.

Above all, hie thee hither. Last show: Feb. 18

jonas-kaufman-dp.jpgAnd for those drawn to more intimate events there was a chance to hear Jonas Kaufmann (right) locally -- despite all the disappointment he's caused in New York among other places. You see, the German heartthrob who currently heads the world list of operatic tenors is only available for a certain number of cancellations. But he came -- to the Broad Stage -- he sang, he conquered.

For sure, I did not expect to be captivated by his account of Schubert's "Die Schöne Müllerin," a song cycle of exquisitely detailed poetry. Kaufmann's popularity comes from the big, dashing roles he inhabits on the opera stage. He's strikingly handsome, a crack actor and has the vocal chops (a darkly dramatic tenor) to expand to most big roles. For one thing it was the Met's opening, a new production of "Tosca," that he unceremoniously canceled, giving the impression that any contract is his to keep or reject.

But among his fans no doubts were in evidence at the soldout Broad -- I sat next to a woman who drove six hours one way from Modesto and planned to return right afterwards. Quite worth it, she likely thought.

And if Kaufmann, together with his astute piano accompanist Helmut Deutsch, had not performed the work with so much refinement and sensitivity, the event would still have been a boon -- a rare chance, these days, to hear German Lieder, that special genre of close-up artistry, with those microscopic searchings of the soul in all their varied moods and modes.

The Broad atmosphere certainly proved perfect for such traversals, and the now-graying singer even handed spoken compliments to his host stage. Yes, he liked the way he came across, as the Schubertian proto-hero -- young, innocent, mortally vulnerable and written from that vantage point when the composer was 27.

Was there the lad who feels his life hangs on the yes or no answer of the girl he's spied and loved instantly? Certainly. Was he unsullied and hopeful, free of dread and anxiety at first? Of course. Did he find in surrounding nature the apotheosis of his love? No doubt. But did lost love ultimately cause despondency unto death? Just imagine.

Specifically, Kaufmann defined those contours vocally. He lightened his dark tones with soft ardor, and suggested simple glee by letting some pure notes pop up like coins thrown in the air. He did not resort to that effete, precious mouthing of words often invoked but used his whole dynamic range from pianissimo to ravishing bursts of excitement. Poetry abounded. Music flourished.

No wonder the singer has found this niche.

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