Archive | January, 2014

Candide starts the new year

12 Jan

Happy New Year to you all.

I started 2014 with a visit to the Royal Ballet’s Nutcracker with my niece – hugely enjoyed by both of us – but the first operatic experience was Bernstein’s Candide at the Menier Chocolate Factory.  I suspect that a number of opera goers may not know of this little theatre, by London Bridge.  It seats a couple of hundred in a studio format and has a strong tradition of doing very successful revivals of musicals.   It’s worth a visit.

So is Candide.  I first saw this piece in 1981 when the Birmingham Rep Company brought it to Edinburgh and I fell in love with the sheer glamour and wit of Bernstein’s score and the madcap adventure.  It was a production that played for laughs, rather than reflection and was a huge success.  Since then, I’ve seen most of the UK productions – the Scottish one in 1988, the National Theater in 1999 and the ENO one in 2007.  They’ve all been different, which adds, I suppose, to the excitement.

For those that don’t know, the piece was a flop on Broadway in the 1950s.  It was intended explicitly as an operetta satirising the McCarthy era – it must have looked a bit strange given the place the Musical Theatre was at at the time.  Interest was renewed in the 1970s when Harold Prince did a chamber production with a heavily revised book and ever since enthusiasts have been trying to make it work.  The Scottish Opera version, with a revised book by John Wells to bring it closer to Voltaire, is the basis for this production but at least a couple of numbers have been deleted (quite sensibly).

For all the efforts, the piece still doesn’t quite work.  It feels very long on narrative, short on characterisation and this production work because of the music and the sheer energy of the cast.  I’m curious about the original version and would love to see somebody try to resurrect at least the original text and musical order to see how, in fact, it would work now.  I’m pretty sure, however, that it works better in a chamber situation and in a production where energy and vitality can overcome a pretty convoluted picaresque story.  The large scale performances that I’ve come across – the ENO versions, Bernstein’s own 1989 operatic attempt – make it seem over-blown and over-long.

Pending that, however, this production will do very nicely.  With outstandingly quick, inventive direction by Matthew White and smashing choreography by Adam Cooper, this was a production that kept the piece going and held the audience’s attention.  Perhaps there’s a slackening at the beginning of Act II – I wonder if you need the figures of Martin and Cacambo and I’m certain that you don’t need both the opening number and the Venice number (I’d keep the Venice one, the original), and I missed Quiet and the Old Lady/Cunegonde duet –  but overall this was a fleet, hugely enjoyable that showed the strengths of the piece.

A very small band did its best with the showpiece overture but otherwise provided really excellent support for the cast.  They were made up of singers with a background in musicals rather than opera and it paid off hugely – words were clear and put across beautifully and with real skill.  Scarlett Strallen made the best Cunegonde that I’ve seen, acting Glitter and be gay to the hilt but also making it work musically and singing it with real skill.  It was the nearest that I’ve heard to matching Barbara Cook on the original cast recording.  Bernstein used an operatic tenor for Candide (Robert Rounseville) but Fra Fee made it clear that you don’t actually need that level of training to make the part come to life.  I felt that his singing of Candide’s last number was far more effective and moving than, say Jerry Hadley’s on the Bernstein CD, and he caught the earnest naivete of the role to perfection.  Jackie Clunes was a great Old Lady who did her big number to perfection.  James Dreyfus, predictably, was excellent as Pangloss and other assorted roles.  The entire cast worked with precision, energy and enthusiasm and, perhaps, I’ll only mention Christopher Jacobson, the understudy Maximillian, who swas so good, you didn’t think he was an understudy.

So, on the whole, as good a Candide as I’ve seen.  The final scene as, after all the adventures, Candide and his curious group of friends set to to make the garden grow, was actually moving and got as near the political message of the piece as all the other versions put together.  I strongly recommend it both to anyone who loves the piece (they’ll probably have their seats booked anyway) and to those who love an exciting, exhilerating piece of music theatre. Perhaps the Menier will have a go at Wonderful Town, now.