You could say the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra saved the best for last this season. Sure, there were all those notable concerts of Mozart, Mahler, Shostakovich and the usual suspects. But the BSO's terrific version of Leonard Bernstein's "Candide" led by Marin Alsop and featuring a whole lot of talent packed onstage is among the most satisfying BSO ventures of any recent season.
Not a big surprise, really. Alsop, who was mentored by Bernstein, has long championed his music, which she has programmed frequently and rewardingly. The production of Bernstein's "Mass" she conducted a few years ago hit a memorable expressive peak. This "Candide" hit another.
Both of these theater pieces have reputations as problematic, flawed, too ambitious, whatever. Don't believe any of that. Alsop clearly doesn't, which explains how she could make every note of "Mass" ring true. Every note of this "Candide" does, too. Not that every note is included — this fancied-up concert version omits some music and chunks of dialogue.
There have been a zillion different editions of "Candide," which started out in 1956 with a book by Lillian Hellman, based on the classic Voltaire novel from 1759, and has neen repeatedly revised by others. Finding agreement on a truly definitive score remains elusive.
The BSO is using as a basis an adaptation that Lonny Price made for the New York Philharmonic's performances conducted by Alsop in 2004 and nationally televised. The script has been tweaked a little for the BSO by Garnett Bruce, who is also stage director of this nimble, generally well-paced venture.
Although a fully-staged, note- and word-complete "Candide" would be the best of all possible presentations, the essence of the work remains, and it's delectable.
Above all, there's Bernstein's scintillating music, which magically conjures up the spirit of French operetta (with a splash of Gilbert and Sullivan) and even the sweeping lyricism of Richard Strauss, all the while sounding thoroughly original. It was light-years ahead of what was being written in the 1950s for Broadway; it's still light-years ahead of melodically, harmonically, rhythmically bland musicals being churned out today.
There's plenty of zing and zaniness in the plot, too, which finds innocently optimistic Candide buffeted by the world's horrors and injustices, before finally accepting the reality that we just have "to make some sense of life" and "do the best we know" with the help of those we love.
On Thursday night at the Music Center at Strathmore, the pleasures started with the BSO, which seemed to relish every prismatic shade of the orchestration. Although Alsop's tempo for the famous overture needed to be kicked up a notch, she shaped the rest of the score compellingly, alert to its wit as well as its heart.
The exceptional cast seemed ready to take the show into a traditional theater and do the whole thing in a full staging. There was no shortage of vocal and theatrical flair.
In the title role, Keith Jameson revealed a sweet voice and a knack for spinning exquisite phrases; he sounds like a true tenore di grazia of yore. As Candide's beloved Cunegonde, who has a habit of getting killed and then reappearing ("You Were Dead You Know" is among the drollest songs in the score), soprano Lauren Snouffer sailed through the show endearingly.
The double-Tony Award winning Judy Kaye does a brilliant turn as the one-buttock-shy Old Lady who becomes a pivotal figure in the churning saga. She lays on a deliciously thick accent and sings up a storm.
Vibrant work also came from Joshua Hopkins as the optimism-preaching Dr. Pangloss; Mark Diamond as the preening Maximilian; and, in a variety of roles, Baltimore School for the Arts alum Patrick Cook and Curtis Bannister.
The Baltimore Choral Arts Society sounded better than ever and seemed to enjoy the many opportunities to get in the act (stage business for the choristers really got fun in Act 2, after the choristers changed into colorfully casual garb).
Helping to keep everything clear was an ideal narrator, NPR's Peter Sagal, sporting an 18th-century costume, complete with powdered wig. His inviting voice and natural manner, familiar to fans of his show "Wait Wait … Don't Tell Me" (he sneaked in a couple of cute references to it), made the script come to life. He had even the weakest jokes in the narration landing nicely.
Alsop also got in to the act a couple times; especially worthwhile was a little shtick with her stick.
"Candide" will be performed at 8 p.m. Saturday and at 3 p.m. Sunday at Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. Tickets are $35 to $85. Call 410-783-8000 or go to bsomusic.org.