BERLIN — Leonard Bernstein called his “Candide” an American valentine to Europe. That Voltaire-inspired romp, which premiered on Broadway in 1956, is one of several classic American musicals unfurling on German-speaking stages this season.
Wait. Did I say “musical”?
The jury is still out on how to classify Bernstein’s “Candide.” The composer himself, who kept revising the work until 1989, hoped that “Candide” might turn out to be an entirely new musical form altogether. For the director Barrie Kosky, who leads the Komische Oper Berlin, the peculiar mixture of opera, operetta and musical that is “Candide” adds up to the novel genre of “existential vaudeville,” according to an interview in the playbill.
Productions of “Candide” tend to be heavy on powdered wigs and painted backdrops. With one outrageous exception — a hairpiece the size of a Buick appears briefly — the Berlin staging dispenses with foppish frivolities in favor of something far darker and closer to the spirit of Voltaire’s original.
The Komische Oper has a long history of presenting musicals and operettas alongside operatic staples. In the past, Mr. Kosky has succeeded in freshening up repertory staples, working his sophisticated magic on “West Side Story” and “Fiddler on the Roof.” However, as much as this “Candide” sparkles, it is also a production that takes its director — and us, by extension — to the brink.
An endless carousel of war, plague, inquisition, rape, earthquake and torture, “Candide” unfolds in a landscape of natural catastrophe and human carnage, as Voltaire’s everyman tests the philosophical doctrine of optimism and conclusively decides that this is not the best of all possible worlds.
With Bernstein’s magnificent, highly changeable music given a full-steam-ahead rendition by the house orchestra, led by the young Canadian conductor Jordan de Souza, the scenes tumble forth nightmarishly with a manic energy thanks to Otto Pichler’s elaborate choreography. Yet despite the pessimism — and possible nihilism — that Mr. Kosky highlights, there is plenty of humor, and even pathos.
In the title role, Allan Clayton uses a bright, resilient voice to parry at the slings and arrows of fortune, while Nicole Chevalier’s hard-nosed Cundegonde harbors few of her lover’s illusions. Alongside these young singers, two stage veterans, Franz Hawlata and Anne Sofie von Otter, are winningly sardonic as Voltaire/Dr. Pangloss and the Old Lady.
The action in “Candide” jerks us from Europe to the New World and back, as the protagonists spend much of their time in exile. And while Mr. Kosky’s production doesn’t seem set in a particular epoch, the staging does contain references to current events, including the ongoing refugee crisis and the Islamophobic backlash it has produced in much of Europe. A Muslim couple clothed in rags and clutching plastic bags is brought before the Inquisition and executed. At the end of the first act, Candide undertakes his journey to Paraguay in a rubber dinghy on choppy seas. Such topicality can seem heavy-handed, but it bridges the gap between the ugly world that Voltaire satirized and our own.
A very different sort of Broadway musical set in Europe is “The Sound of Music,” from 1959, the world-famous blockbuster that vies with Mozart for being the most famous export of Salzburg, Austria.
“Sound of Music” kitsch practically runs through the medieval alleyways of that alpine city. One place you won’t find it, though, is on the stage of the Salzburger Landestheater, where the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic has been given a sober and elegant staging by the directors Andreas Gergen and Christian Struppeck.
I admit that my first glimpse of Maria sprawling on AstroTurf (“The hills are alive…”) briefly had me in stitches. But once the fake grass is rolled offstage, the production grows uncommonly serious and effective. The fluid, uncluttered staging, with sets and costumes by Court Watson, is blessedly free of the schlock that has accumulated on the musical like edelweiss over the past 60 years.
Hovering over the domestic drama of the von Trapps is the Nazi nightmare that will soon descend. The Third Reich is frequently invoked through brief newsreels of Hitler and a flash-forward to 1945. At the musical’s climax, S.S. men descend into the auditorium and block the exits. It’s a far cry from “Springtime for Hitler.”
Aside from the cleareyed production, Milica Jovanovic’s charismatic and mischievous Maria is the best reason to see this “Sound of Music.” She channels Julie Andrews, especially while singing, yet also succeeds in making the role her own, in her subtly wry and sexy performance. Other standouts include Axel Meinhardt as the theater impresario Max Dettweiler and the no-nonsense Franziska Becker as Captain von Trapp’s erstwhile fiancée, Elsa Schrader. As for the rigid paterfamilias, Uwe Kröger, a veteran to the role, delivered far more dramatically than vocally. The seven von Trapp children, several of whom will be switched out over the course of the run, were adorable without being cloying.
The Landestheater is a state-run cultural venue that encompasses dramatic and musical theater, opera and dance. Outside of Salzburg’s storied, elite summertime festival, it’s one-stop shopping for culture in the city of Mozart. Given the shrinking size of pit bands on Broadway, one of the main advantages of seeing musicals in a theater designed for opera is hearing the score performed by a full orchestra. The Mozarteumorchester Salzburg, led by Robin Davis, made Richard Rodgers’s rapturous and infectious music sound fuller and grander than it probably has since the film version from 1965.
“The Sound of Music” is as close to the quintessential Broadway musical as they come. Astoundingly, only eight years separate it from “Hair,” the “tribal love rock musical” that shattered all the rules in 1967. “Hair” is a centerpiece of the season at the Altes Schauspielhaus in Stuttgart, Germany.
In the late ’60s, the musical broke new ground not only because it featured onstage nudity from a racially diverse cast, but also because it dispensed with plot almost entirely, introducing a bold style of a musical untethered from the traditional expository demands of theater. In our day, its influence can be seen — for better or worse — in the profusion of jukebox musicals, although none have ever topped Galt MacDermot’s original score.
“Hair” first arrived in Germany in 1968, and I wouldn’t be surprised if many in the gray-haired audience in Stuttgart had seen it back then. Klaus Seiffert’s lively production often feels like a nostalgia trip, complete with a tie-dyed set and psychedelic projections, despite references to both President Barack Obama and President Trump. One idea Mr. Seiffert suggests but never really develops is that we’re watching as Berger, one of the show’s main characters, relives his memories of the era as an aging hippie.
Luckily, the spirited musical performances (featuring an otherworldly theremin) save the production from sliding into sentimental tedium. The 14 actors who make up the “tribe” of hippies act, sing and dance with cohesion and vitality, even if the production as a whole often lacks spontaneity; it’s really only during a reprise of “Let the Sun Shine In” during the curtain call that those in the large cast get to let their hair down.
Even so, the skilled performers ooze innocence, joy and exhilaration. As with the productions in Berlin and Salzburg, it felt as if Europe were sending America a valentine back.