A TALK ON CANDIDE
By Jamie Bernstein
Here's the irony: at the point where the score chokes you up, that's the point where Bernstein and Voltaire have parted ways.
Voltaire's caustic sensibility was much closer, actually, to Lillian Hellman's than to Bernstein's. As effervescent and delightful as the songs are in "Candide," it was not enough for Bernstein to leave it at that. He just had to give the show some heart. But in truth, that's not in the genuine spirit of Voltaire.
The tone of Voltaire's novella is remorselessly cynical about the foibles and hypocrisies of man -- and yet Bernstein's music takes us somewhere else entirely, especially in the much-loved finale, "Make Our Garden Grow."
When Candide says "Cultivons notre jardin," Voltaire meant it as an expression of rueful resignation, an acceptance of one's limitations -- as if Candide were saying: "Oh, let's quit spewing our fancy philosophy and go make ourselves useful for a change." But the music is telling us something completely different: the soaring chorus seems to be telling us that growing our garden is a metaphor for the flowering of mankind itself! I'm pretty sure that's not what Voltaire meant. But while this finale may not quite align itself with Voltaire's original intent, I think the end result is greater than the sum of the parts. After all, when it comes to cynicism and idealism, the truth about our existence lies somewhere in between.