Online opera guide and synopsis to Leonard Bernstein’s CANDIDE

This operetta by Leonard Bernstein is an absolute jewel. Each of the pieces has stunning humour, passion and musicality. It is both comedy and social criticism. It was the overture that made it famous. You almost have to go back to Rossini to find an overture that captures the comedy of the plot so perfectly.






♪ Act I  (Westfalia, Auto-da-fe, Paris, Cadiz)

♪ Act II  (Montevideo, Jesuits, Eldorado, Surinam, Venice)


Recording recommendation

♪ Recording recommendation




Life is happiness indeed

Oh happy we

It must be so


Glitter and be gay (Jewel Aria)

What’s the use

Make our garden grow




Roles and Synopsis of CANDIDE












Bernstein’s Candide follows Voltaire’s novella “Candide or the Optimism” (french: “Candide ou l’optimisme”) from 1755 quite closely. To understand Bernstein’s Candide, it is worthwhile to take a brief look at the philosophical debate that induced Voltaire to write  Candide, in order to reflect it in a second step with Bernstein’s reality of life.



Voltaire and Leibnitz – The philosophers’ dispute

Voltaire portrayed the protagonist Candide as a naive young man raised to optimism who has to leave his familiar home and his mistress. His path takes him around the globe, and he experiences one grotesque catastrophe after another. Only slowly does it dawn on him that his naive, optimistic view of human beings – his belief in the best of all possible worlds – does not stand up to reality.

Voltaire wrote Candide as a contradiction to Leibnitz’s thesis, which postulated reality as “the best of all possible worlds,” stating that God could think many possible worlds but wanted only the best.



Voltaire’s criticism of the ruling institutions

For Voltaire, influenced by the catastrophes of the Seven Years’ War and the Lisbon earthquake, this was a naive, utopian view, promoted by institutions such as the Church or the nobility, which thus sought to manipulate the population to their advantage. He seems to have hit the nail on the head with this, as the Vatican placed the work on the Index shortly after its publication.



Bernstein’s criticism of the Mc Carthyism

200 years later the addressee of criticism was no longer the church. Candide is a work written under the influence of the Mc Carthy era of the USA of the fifties. People suspected of communist activities were dragged and interrogated before parliamentary committees of inquiry (e.g. the House Committee on Un-American Activities) and thus stigmatized. Many artists were affected, who suffered from boycotts and de facto bans on their professions because the theatres were afraid of reprisals when they hired them. Both main authors of this work, the composer Bernstein and the librettist Hellman as well as many of their friends were personal targets of violent persecution by the tribunals. Candide was a matter of the heart for both of them. Bernstein accompanied the premiere in 1957 with an article published in the New York Times, accusing America’s puritanical snobbery, its double standards and the inquisitorial attacks on the individual.



Hellman adapts Voltaire’s novel

Voltaire’s Candide was quite modest in size, at just under 90 pages, but the content was quite impressive. Almost on every page Candide is in a new place and must pass a new adventure. Lillian Hellman took over Candide’s story by and large. She overturned some adventures from the story and reinvented some of them (e.g. the auto-da-fé or the casino scene).



The difficult history of the work

After its premiere in 1956, the work went through a complicated 35-year history of revisions, comparable to Verdi’s tale of suffering of his work Don Carlo. To understand the complexity of the original Candide of 1956, the following detail should be mentioned: in order to do justice to the wealth of stories in this work, 81 different role figures populated the premiere version of Bernstein’s Candide! No wonder the creation process was extremely complex and makes Hellmann’s claim that she had to write 7 different script versions seem credible.

The audience response on Broadway was moderate and Candide was cancelled after only 73 performances. The work suffered from the confusing plot, the gruff seriousness of the texts and the exaggerated length (it consisted of over 30 numbers!). In the following 3 decades different persons changed the work, until Leonard Bernstein personally wrote the “final, revised version” in 1988, simplified and with jaunty lyrics.



The many fathers of the work

While Bernstein was the only composer of the work (apart from the person who helped him with the orchestration), over the years about a dozen people have contributed lyrics, including Bernstein himself. First and foremost, Lillian Hellman, who had the idea and wrote the script. On Broadway it was common for the script and lyrics to be written by different people. Due to the time pressure and the many script variations, a wide variety of writers were already consulted for the first version, with Richard Wilbur having the lion’s share.



Lillian Hellman

Lillian Hellman was a dazzling character. She went to Europe in 1936, where she was a correspondent for the Spanish Civil War and met Ernest Hemingway, whom she accompanied for some time. With her upright stance in the Mc Carthy tribunals she was considered a role model against the intolerance of the Mc Carthy era (source: Wikipedia). She later described the Candide period as her most terrible theatrical experience and refused to participate in the later revisions and forbade others to use her text modules. She was a difficult person and it was probably no coincidence that Bernstein wrote the final version of Candide only after her death in 1984.



Candide: Musical, opera, operetta or even opera parody?

The musical world is not unanimous about the genre to which the work belongs. Bernstein himself described the work as operetta. While the Westside Story, with its jazzy music and many dance scenes, is more a piece of the Broadway or musical genre, Candide is based on “more sophisticated”, more classical forms such as mazurkas, gavottes, etc., and the leading roles are musically so demanding that they have to be cast with trained opera singers.


But let’s get down to the music itself.



The famous overture

Bernstein’s witty and musically sparkling overture is one of the most performed pieces by American classical composers. In the style of Rossini, it quotes many of the themes of opera, which we will encounter in pieces such as “The Best of All Possible Worlds”, “Battle Music”, “Oh, Happy We”, and “Glitter and Be Gay”.

We will hear them in the interpretation conducted by the composer himself.

Ouverture  –  Bernstein

Synopsis: In the castle Thunder-ten-Tronk in backward Westphalia. Candide, the Baron’s illegitimate son, lives there with his family. He is a cheerful and simple soul and is in love with his half-sister Cunegonde who is addicted to luxury, and who returns his feelings. The family leads a happy and carefree life at the castle.

The first piece appears in the dress of a cheerful gavotte. The text is stunning, each of the four main characters is described to me a few lines aptly and the piece ends with a swinging ensemble and a high C of Cunegonde.

Life is happiness indeed  –  Hadley / Anderson / Ollmann  / della Jones



The house philosopher’s credo: we live in the best of all worlds

Synopsis: Dr. Pangloss, the house philosopher, taught the family to be happy, since one lives in the best of all possible worlds. He dispels any doubts that there might be adversities in life, he can even gain good things from things like war.

Pangloss’ reasoning that war has its good points is as follows:

War! Though war may seem a bloody curse
It is a blessing in reverse
When canon roar
Both rich and poor
By danger are united!

The best o fall possible worldHadley/Anderson/Ollmann/Bernstein



The charming duet of Cunegonde and Candide

Synopsis: Candide and Cunegonde meet in the park and dream of their future. But their expectations diverge. Cunegonde has luxury and jewellery in mind, Candide dreams of a simple life on a farm with many children. But both are busy with their own dreams, and they don’t recognize the deep ditch.

Bernstein also worked on his West Side Story during these years. This song was originally composed for a duet of Tony and Maria, but was dropped while they hat to do cuts. Bernstein hated to write for the trash and (fortunately) used the song for Candide.

This duet “oh happy we” became one of the great pearls of this work. Bernstein loved tilted beats, in this piece he uses a 7/4 beat which creates a lovely floating between 4/4 and ¾ beats.

Soon when we feel we can afford it…Oh happy we  –  Hadley/Anderson/Bernstein

Candide loses Cunegonde

Synopsis: The family forbids the improper marriage and chases Candide away. He’s deeply saddened that he has to leave Cunegonde. But he wants to look ahead, Pangloss taught him optimism, he believes in fate, which offers him the best of all possible worlds.

My world ist dust now…It must be so  –  Hadley

With his serious music, Candide’s figure is directly reminiscent of Mozart’s tenor roles such as Don Ottavio or Belmonte. Like Mozart’s characters, a serious person gets into a tragic comedy. Like Mozart, it is the figure of the opera seria who involuntarily gets into an opera buffa. It is Candide’s tragedy that his lover is not an alter ego like Konstanze or Donna Anna, but only a cunningly luxurious Cunegonde.



The terrible fate of his family

Synopsis: Westphalia is afflicted by a war. Candide is forced to be recruited. He is tortured after an attempt at desertion and manages to return to the castle in the second attempt. There he finds his family dead in the ruins of the castle. Cunegonde was raped by the soldiers several times before her death. Candide says goodbye to his dead lover.

We hear Jerry Hadley again in Candide’s Lament. He was a lyrical tenor who sang mostly Mozart and Donizetti. He was discovered in the 1980s. Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge supported him and Bernstein worked with him repeatedly. His life ended tragically with a suicide in 2007.




Pangloss illness

Synopsis: Lonely, Candide wanders on and surprisingly meets Pangloss. His teacher was able to save himself from the plundering armies, but syphilis has hit him hard. But the philosopher sees this as a positive thing, for only those who know pain know how to enjoy the pleasures that the illness has brought him.

This piece is also called the Syphilis Song. It is a great song with witty lyrics and a beautiful melody in the choir. Some people listen to this music with Gilbert & Sullivan in their ears.

Dear Boy  –  Allen



The Auto-da-fé – a key scene of the work

Synopsis: They meet a merchant who takes them to Lisbon. Arriving there, a gigantic volcano erupts. Fortunately, the two of them are not among the thirty thousand dead. But fate befalls them as Pangloss spreads his heretical philosophy. They are arrested by the Inquisition and taken to the auto-da-fé. Pangloss refers to his venereal disease that forbids him to be executed. He is sentenced to death at the stake and dies. Candide gets off lightly and only takes lashes.

The auto-da-fé scene does not exist in Voltaire’s novel and yet it is a key scene in Bernstein’s work. The authors openly equate the Inquisition court with the tribunals of Mc Carthy’s witch hunt. Like Voltaire, Bernstein’s response to injustice was satire, for only in this way was it possible to digest what had happened.

This scene is also a testimony of Bernstein’s love for the European opera, Verdi’s Don Carlo sends his regards.

Auto-da-fe  –  Bernstein


Synopsis: Candide begins to doubt his optimism. But self-critically he sees the error in himself.

My master told me…it must be me



In Paris

Synopsis: In Paris.

The so-called Parisian Waltz is a mazurka and a tribute to Chopin. It is an orchestral piece with a beautiful interlude of solo violin and flute. It is sometimes played later as the Governor’s waltz.

Paris Waltz  –  Bernstein


Glitter and Gay  –  Cunegonde’s great aria

Synopsis: A courtesan lives there, kept by two lovers, the Archbishop of Paris and a rich Jewish merchant. It’s Cunegonde. She despises her life, but she loves the luxury it offers.

Although the title role belongs to the male role of Candide, the most famous aria is sung by Cunegonde. It subsequently became a showpiece for coloratura sopranos. Bernstein called Candide a Valentine ticket to European opera. This aria by Cunegonde, which is about luxury and jewellery, is not set in Paris by chance, for it is a blatant parody of Gounod’s “Jewellery Aria” from his masterpiece Faust.

This piece is an aria for coloratura soprano. It is a soprano piece with the aspiration of an operatic aria. It presents the interpreter with some difficulties. Firstly, the aria has a large range – three high Eb’s must be sung! – and secondly, some of the ornate scales are extremely intricate. In addition, the whole thing has to be sung with apparent ease and wit – after all, we are in a comedy.


 Barbara Cook was the first Cunegonde. The casting team then had great difficulty finding a suitable person who could manage the high notes.  Bernstein selected her personally and coached her for this difficult role. She compared the singing of this piece with an athletic record. On the recording, one no longer feels the drudgery, the joy of singing in this piece is contagious.

Glitter and be gay – Cook


You hear another interpretation by Scarlett Strallen. She makes the Royal Albert Hall boil.

Glitter and be gay – Strallen



Candide meets the undead Cunegonde

Synopsis: By chance, Candide also ended up in Paris, where he meets Cunegonde to his astonishment. The two are happy to have each other again.

This piece is also a loving parody of the European bel canto tradition, in which the two sing arpeggios in thirds and sixths (see for example in the passage 2:27 in the recording below). The lyrics of the two dissimilar persons are sparkling with wit and higher nonsense:

What torture, oh what pain
Holland, Portugal and Spain

Bernstein delights the listener with an exuberant waltz in the refrain of this duet.

You were dead, you know. Oh is it true, Cunegonde

The Old Lady appears

Synopsis: They are disturbed by the old lady, Cunegondes’ companion. She announces the arrival of the Cunegonde’s lovers. In a fit, Candide kills them both. The Cardinal is buried in the great cathedral. The Jew lands in the nearest sewer. Cunegonde, Candide and the old lady escape. On the run, they are robbed. To earn their dinner in Cadiz, the old lady sings a song about her unhappy past.

This further stunning piece is a flamenco. The old lady speaks of her origin from Rovno Gobernia. This is not a geographical indication Voltaire’s, but an idea of Bernstein. Rovno Gobernia was the birthplace of his father who emigrated from Russia. The text of this play is by Bernstein himself. An anecdote says that he couldn’t find a rhyme for Rovno Gobernia when writing the text and complained to his (Spanish speaking wife) Felicia about it. Since the old lady sings Spanish in this flamenco, Felicia spontaneously came up with the hilarious verse “me muero me sale una hernia” (I am dying and growing a hernia).

We hear this piece in a wonderful interpretation by Christa Ludwig.

I was not born in sunny hispania … I am so easily assimilated (1)  –  Christa Ludwig


A second version of La Pune, wonderfully comic.

I was not born in sunny hispania … I am so easily assimilated (2)  – La Pune


Synopsis: Candide remains an optimist. On the run from the Paris police, Candide is hired by the jesuits for their fight in South America. The two women accompany him on the crossing to Montevideo.

The act ends with a beautiful quartet.

Once again we must be gone








Next stop: Montevideo

Synopsis: Maximilian and Paquette are miraculously alive again and were taken to Montevideo as slaves. Maximilian was dressed as a woman and the governor of Montevideo fell in love with him. When he notices his mistake, he meets the newly arrived Cunegonde and makes advances to her.

This piece is also known as the Governor’s Serenade. It’s a beautiful play in best Broadway manner.

Poets have said…My love  –  Burt

The intrigue of the old lady

Synopsis: The Old Lady is cheating Candide that the French police are still after him. He flees into the jungle and the Old Lady fixes Cunegonde up with the governor.

We are women  –  Chenoweth/LuPone



Candide meets old friends in the jungle

Synopsis: Candide, accompanied by the half-blood Cacambo, is on the way to the Jesuit Camp in the middle of the jungle. There Paquette lives as abbess and Maximilian as Jesuit priest.

Come heathen of America (Pilgrims procession)  –  Bernstein



Synopsis: Candide joyfully tells them that Cunegonde is also still alive and that they plan to get married. When Maximilian calls the marriage improper, Candide stabs him and flees the Jesuit camp.



Cunegonde is sitting bored in the governor’s palace

Synopsis: Meanwhile 3 years have passed. Cunegonde and the Old Lady live bored in the luxury of the governor’s palace. Cunegonde complains to the governor that he promised to marry her long ago.



Candide finds the Eldorado

Synopsis: While fleeing through the jungle, Candide comes across a wondrous land. It is Eldorado, a land where gems lie around on the ground and everyone is fine. But Candide does not want to stay without his Cunegonde. He just wants to take some gems with him to buy Cunegonde off.

The Ballade of Eldorado is written in the rare 5/8 time signature.

Up a seashell mountain (Ballad of Eldorado)



Candide meets a pessimist

Synopsis: Because he fears to be arrested, he sends his companion Cacambo to Cunegonde. He wants to meet them in Venice. On his way to Venice, Candide passes Surinam, where he meets the pessimist Martin, who names greed and malice as the driving forces of mankind.

We hear in this interpretation Adolph Green, a lifelong close friend of Bernstein and artistic colleague.

Free will. Humanity. Love. … Words, words, words  –  Adolph Green



The bizarre rescue of Candides from sea distress

Synopsis: There he buys a sailing ship from a Dutch crook to cross the ocean. He now feels full of happiness again in this best of all possible worlds. But the luck lasts only a short time, because the ship soon sinks. Candide is saved by a raft, which is rowed by 4 kings and steered by Pangloss.

What is musically more obvious than a barcarolle when it comes to Venice?

Kings Barcarolle –  Hadley / Green / Bayley / Jenkins / Benson / Stuart / Treleaven


In Venice at the Casino

Synopsis: The raft makes its way to Venice, where the kings immediately go to the casino. There Cunegonde and the Old Lady are employed to animate the players and cheat them. Maximilian is also miraculously in the city and is its corrupt police chief.

A further highlight awaits the listener, the waltz-blessed “What’s the use”.

I’ve always been wily and clever…What’s the use –  LuPone/Olsen/Herrera/McElroy


Synopsis: Pangloss broke the bank on the roulette game. Cunegonde is not interested in Candide, she and the old lady jump on Pangloss to profit from the money.

This piece is called “Venice Gavotte”. It is a beautiful, but musically quite complex piece with counterpoint (in video from 3:10), which combines the 2 themes of ots first part.

I’ve got troubles, as I’ve said (Venice Gavotte) –  Hadley/Anderson/Ludwig/Green



Candides Desillusion

Synopsis: Candide is disillusioned. Has wealth always been more important to Cunegonde than love?


The moral of the story

Synopsis: For days they don’t speak a word. Wth the remaining money they buy a small farm. At some point Cunegonde and Candide make up again. Even though love no longer blooms as before, they want to marry. Because life is neither good nor bad.

Voltaire ends the odyssey of Candide and Cunegonde at their lowest possible denominator, the limitation to the common banal domestic work. Voltaire’s moral of the story “il faut cultiver son jardin” is resigned but somehow comforting. Bernstein turned it into “Make Our Garden Grow”, whose text follows Voltaire’s model. But the music speaks a different language, Bernstein composed an ecstatic optimistic ending. In the end, Bernstein was … an optimist.

You’ve been a fool and so have I… Make our garden grow.




Recording recommendation of the operetta CANDIDE

DG with Christa Ludwig, Nicolas Gedda, June Anderson, Adolph Green and Jeremy Hadley under the direction of Leonard Bernstein and the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus



Peter Lutz, opera-inside, the online opera guide on CANDIDE by Leonard Bernstein.




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