I can't think of a more brilliant or inventive way of presenting Bernstein's Candide than Robert Carsen's production for English National Opera.
Instead of presenting Bernstein's musicalisation of the Voltaire novella in the age of the Enlightenment, Carsen plays the show for what it is: a satire of 1950s America. The proscenium resembles a television set, with scrolling titles during the overture like the opening of a movie.
Voltaire's Westphalia becomes West Failure, which Carsen sets against the backdrop of the White House, and the auto-da-fe scene blends a dancing chorus of the Ku Klux Klan (far spookier than The Royal Opera's staging of the burning of the heretics in the new Don Carlo) with images of the McCarthy witch hunts. Cunegonde's 'Glitter and Be Gay' (a pastiche of Gounod's Jewel Song from Faust) is staged as a 'Diamond's Are a Girl's Best Friend' type-number, with the character wearing a Marilyn Monroe blonde wig and pink dress.
Candide remains the blue-eyed, blond-haired innocent throughout, and the narration is delivered by the character of Voltaire (wearing eighteenth-century dress) in front of the television set. The Five Kings number shows modern world leaders washed up on the sea, while in an eerie postmodern staging of 'Quiet', a television set within the television proscenium becomes the subject of the irritation between the Old Woman (a feisty Jew), Cunegonde and the Governor. It's all imaginatively conceived, and Michael Levine's fast-flowing sets are gorgeously lavish.
However, it's still Candide, that most mauled-about-with of Broadway shows, and it remains a heck of a lot more interesting on paper than it is in performance. Bernstein's score is patchier than some people want to admit – perhaps five really good numbers stand isolated amongst a lot of very standard fare – while the work of what seems like dozens of writers (Sondheim, Hellman, Wilbur, Latouche, Parker and Bernstein himself) has left behind very few memorable or genuinely funny or elegant lyrics. By using almost every number ever written for the show, Carsen presents us with a very long version of the piece (Act II runs an hour and a half) and one which emphasises that the story of Everyman Candide's travels around the world to discover the emptiness of Dr Pangloss' philosophy of optimism has been fleshed out way beyond the lightness of the Voltaire source material. And the finale, 'Make Our Garden Grow', still seems rather an unsatisfactory conclusion for a show that surely portrays a man's disillusionment and promotes realism rather than optimism or pessimism.
Meanwhile, thought-provoking though the production is, the opening night at ENO had a decided lack of pizzazz. The audience reaction was enthusiastic, and towards the end – when the decadence of the Venice casino becomes a seedy Vegas show – a little more sparkle appeared. But the chorus didn't sing or dance with sufficient aplomb or precision; the rather shadowy lighting tended to deaden the mood; and the lack of sheer Broadway gloss gave the evening its longueurs, though not as many, I have to say, as New York City Opera's recent run of the piece.
For me, the biggest problem came with the conducting of Rumon Gamba, whose UK opera house debut this was. From the start of the overture, which was timpani- and brass-heavy and almost devoid of warmth in the strings, I knew there were going to be problems. Speeds were slow, sometimes diverging with those being taken by the singers on the stage, and the sensuousness of the score was overlooked. Balance between stage and pit was also askew in many places, with the amplification causing problems for opera singers used to projecting naturally, and the flair shown by Simon Lee during his two outings conducting in ENO's musical productions last year was completely missing.
Thank goodness for the sensational, suave Alex Jennings: he's perhaps the only person completely at home and relaxed with the material, which is miraculous given the challenge of the triple role he plays. As Voltaire, he draws the audience in with his ironic declamations; as Pangloss, he plays the bogus teacher to a tee; and his portrayal of Martin's deep cynicism is one of the most touching moments of the evening. His singing and diction are just right for the piece, and, in a way, it's worth going just to see him.
Toby Spence, too, is very good in the title role. Britain's leading Mozart tenor is at home with the classical lines of the part, and he seems to have the time of his life doing music theatre, really letting rip at times.
Nobody else is on anything like the same level. Beverley Klein's Old Woman is relentlessly hammy, desperately sung and poor of diction. Anna Christy disappointed me hugely at this performance. After the impressive precision of her coloratura in ENO's Lucia di Lammermoor in February, she seemed to back off 'Glitter and Be Gay', barely hitting the climatic E flat (which is marked lunga in the score) and turning the coloratura into high-pitched humming at times; perhaps she wasn't well? Mark Stone sang strongly and cut a dashing figure onstage but he's far from the most amusing Maximilian I've seen, though Bonaventura Bottone is fine as The Grand Inquisitor.
In sum, the production is well worth the trip, being never less than stimulating, but mixed musical values let the evening down.
Photographs: Catherine Ashmore