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Best of all possible worlds in SF Symphony’s ‘Candide’

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Andrew Stenson sings the title role and Meghan Picerno is Cunegonde in San Francisco Symphony’s “Candide.” (Courtesy Kristin Loken)

Someone in the audience at Thursday night’s San Francisco Symphony performance of “Candide” could probably tell you how many times it changed moods, styles, tempo and locale.

I admit I was too dazzled to keep count.

Leonard Bernstein’s 1956 score, alternately described as opera, operetta or musical comedy, is simply one of a kind. As its globetrotting title character journeys through a series of unfortunate events, this quintessentially American work based on Voltaire’s 18th century novella yields an astonishing array of musical sights and sounds.

Thursday’s semi-staged performance in Davies Symphony Hall found music director Michael Tilson Thomas in total command. The conductor, whose insight into Bernstein’s music is second to none, led his orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, and an excellent cast of singers through the work with uncommon mastery and momentum.

That’s no small accomplishment in a score occasionally described as meandering. As the highlight of the symphony’s season-long Bernstein Celebration, this “Candide” is an exhilarating experience — one that demonstrates the merits of a work that has undergone a number of revisions. Original lyrics by Hugh Wheeler, adapted from Voltaire’s book, were augmented by Lillian Hellman, John La Touche, Dorothy Parker, Stephen Sondheim, and Bernstein himself.

Yet, with Tilson Thomas conducting the “Scottish Opera” version, this “Candide” sounded positively streamlined, its shifts from Broadway lyricism to operatic flights, parody to political satire registering with clarity.

So did the composer’s sheer musical panache. Bernstein’s score is a marvel of rhythmic variety and invention, and Tilson Thomas, occasionally turning to the audience with a witty aside, seemed to relish every one of the polkas, tangos and gavottes that animate the work.

Michael Tilson Thomas leads the San Francisco Symphony in Bernstein’s “Candide,” with, from left, Meghan Picerno, Andrew
Stenson and Vanessa Becerra in the background. (Courtesy Kristin Loken)

Still, it’s the big numbers that make “Candide” memorable, and the brightest moments of Thursday’s performance all involved soprano Meghan Picerno. Making her San Francisco debut as Candide’s beloved Cunegonde, Picerno ascended the coloratura heights of “Glitter and Be Gay” with jaw-dropping precision, and her comic scenes were crisp and extroverted.

In the title role, tenor Andrew Stenson sang with melting tone, summoning an apt air of Candide’s innocence and wonder.

Michael Todd Simpson exuded charm in the dual role of Narrator and Dr. Pangloss.

Soprano Sheri Greenawald, projecting attractively, made the tango aria “I Am Easily Assimilated” another highlight.

Hadleigh Adams (Maximilian), Vanessa Becerra (Paquette) and Ben Jones (Governor) made essential contributions.

By the time the full company gathered to sing the closing anthem, “Make Our Garden Grow,” it was easy to call this “Candide” the best of all possible revivals.

Presented by San Francisco Symphony
Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Jan. 19-20, 2 p.m. Jan. 21
Tickets: $35 to $159; free “informance” one hour before each performance
Contact: (415) 864-6000; www.sfsymphony.org

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