Though they do the star thing well, they are easily trivialized in the process. Long-troubled and endlessly revised, Candide, first seen in 1956, was reduced to such a self-regarding romp in the New York Philharmonic's 2004 televised production that you weren't sure what was happening in the picaresque tale of a hapless lad's repeated encounters with disasters.
As for Handel, in decades past his operas got the hit-and-run treatment from the likes of Beverly Sills and Joan Sutherland, who cycled out of them after major career breakthroughs. But nobody in modern times has conducted as much Handel as Nicholas McGegan, who led his San Francisco-based Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra in Sunday's Teseo. What was that going to sound like?
Both pieces display alluring artifice, and you don't have to get beyond that to achieve beautiful performances. But they also tell important stories that make the music infinitely more meaningful. Candide, Bernstein's response to the communist witch hunts of the '50s, for one, ends with profound reconciliation that can't be heard enough in our fractious times.
Bernstein himself cast mainstream, high-profile opera stars when recording his Broadway shows later in life, and they often gave him tone-over-detail treatment - particularly problematic in the nimble satire of Candide. But if one casts from Broadway theater, as he did with the original 1956 cast, one can't count on landing a young Barbara Cook - theater voices like hers don't come along every day.
On Saturday at Tanglewood, things met in the middle. Under Bramwell Tovey (who does no wrong in in his frequent Philadelphia Orchestra guest-conducting appearances), Candide had a great night, with smaller-voiced, lower-profile classical singers who on another night might be heard in Bach, chamber-scaled Britten, or, most telling, Gilbert and Sullivan.
Richard Suart, a veteran baritone of London's D'Oyly Carte company, wasn't just a vocally accomplished Dr. Pangloss, but held the evening together with pitch-perfect narration of a story whose often-killed characters don't stay dead, repeatedly resurfacing from Montevideo to Venice. Even in a version that includes nearly all music written for the show's many versions, the long, repetitive second act never seemed that way.
Tenor Nicholas Phan sang the title role as art song, intelligently mining the words to achieve great depth of feeling while never robbing the music of its sparkle. A seasoned Candide-ologist, I've never heard such a comprehensive characterization. It's important, since no other characters show the scars inflicted by their adventures. Phan gave the show an anchor and a soul.
As Cunegonde, Anna Christy sang the coloratura "Glitter and Be Gay" as a window into her one-dimensional view of survival. As her sidekick the Old Lady, Frederica von Stade might seem too genteel to step into the shoes of Patti LuPone, who was in the Philharmonic's production. But with an almost-Streep-worthy Polish accent, she played her war-worn Mother Courage-ish character for real, with the dramatic integrity shown in her recent Opera Philadelphia A Coffin in Egypt. Here, the results were funnier.
At least Candide has never lacked for those wanting to make it work. Handel's 1712 Teseo, one of the best works of his early years, slept for centuries: So fraught was its backstage story (the producer grabbed the money and ran) that the piece seemed tainted.
Not now. The Handel opera revival is one of the great reclamation stories in our time: Since the 1980s, his 42 operas have surfaced regularly, even Almira (written at age 19), which triumphed at last year's Boston Early Music Festival. The down side is that Handel's fantastical, myth-based plots are fodder for stage-director overkill that can take the operas further away from the stories they tell.
That wasn't going to happen to Teseo on Sunday. The limited staging only established character relationships. An Anna Akhmatova poem on love printed in the program set the tone for the implacable jealousy of the character of Medea.
The cast had Handel pioneers - soprano Dominique Labelle as Medea and countertenor Drew Minter as Egeo - who have been singing this music for decades but still sound wonderful. With younger singers such as Amanda Forsythe, Celine Ricci, Robin Blaze, and Amy Freston, the performance achieved the basic Handel requirement of being a vocal triathlon, but went so far beyond that.
The group's accumulated wisdom assured that no strokes of musical characterization went unheard. This was not suave, dignified Handel. Getting beyond the basic artifice revealed sly, even nasty humor. The biggest revelations were arias accompanied only by keyboard and gamba. (Often, they sound as if Handel, the orchestrator, took a cigarette break.) In Teseo, these arias told you the most about the characters at hand.
Not that there was much question when a smart, resourceful actress like Labelle is singing Medea. So carried away was she with her final aria that she appeared to fall off a stage riser, and took her bows in tears. But that's not why she was cheered like a rock star, along with everybody else. The better Handel gets, the more real it feels.