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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.

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Should opera singers do musicals?

1 Sep

I went to Carousel on 30th August.  The original production is by Opera North and is playing at the Barbican until 15th September with some of the original cast, the Royal Ballet orchestra and, I think, a new chorus.  It’s a co-production with the Chatelet.

I think that, technically at least, Carousel is one of the masterpieces of the Broadway musical and is easily the most interesting of the Rodgers and Hammerstein pieces.  I’ve a particular fondess for the first act where the sheer mastery of the way dialogue and musical numbers intertwine, particularly the duets in the early part, is fluent and works absolutely brilliantly.  I think that the whole soliloquy for Billy including “My Boy Bill” has the range and emotion of the finest operatic arias.  I part company from some of the ideas now and then, particularly the whole heaven business towards the end.  I think the issues around wife beating are more complex than they demonstrate here, but it’s a very good stab for a Broadway musical at the subject.  The text is as interesting and well constructed as the music.  And, of course, there are really good tunes and, at the end, I didn’t bother to try to restrain the tears.  It’s a superb piece of music theatre.

Opera North have a really good record with musicals.  I retain very fond memories of their Showboat, Sweeney Todd (as good a production of the piece as I’ve seen) and One Touch of Venus and I think that it’s good that opera companies should do them: they’re part of the same tradition and they widen a company’s focus and experience.  Here we had a very fine production by Jo Davies, whose Ruddigore last year was as good a production of a Gilbert and Sullivan piece as I’ve seen.  She had the style pretty much pitch perfect, Anthony Ward’s sets looked good, the show danced and sparkled.  There good accompaniment by the orchestra under John Rigby, the choreography by Kim Brandstrup was really good and the show packed a punch.

The main problem was what caused my heading to this post.  The leads were in the hands of people who have successful operatic careers and their voices trained as such.  They have a different method of singing which pays almost too much attention to the notes and the musical phrasing, rather than using the words and their sense as the clue to the way you sing them.  It doesn’t apply to everyone: two of my favourite discs are of Bryn Terfel and Thomas Hampson singing Rodgers and Hammerstein and Cole Porter respectively.  Hampson is wonderful in the EMI CD of Kiss Me Kate, but listen to Josephine Barstow murder “I hate men” on that disc and you will see what I mean.  I call it “singing in inverted commas”, exaggeratedly enunciating the words and completely losing the flow and impact of the numbers.  It’s not just musicals – it can be a problem in Gilbert and Sullivan and Offenbach too.

In this production, Eric Greene does not make a bad Billy Bigelow at all – he manages the good-hearted complexity and basic stupidity of the man really well and managed the dialogue well.  But I felt he spoiled “My Boy Bill” by trying to sing it too beautifully, by pausing to enunciate particular words where the sense and impetus of the music required him to move on.  The violence was missing.  A similar problem afflicted Elena Ferrari as Nettie Fowler – “You’ll never walk alone” was done perfectly nicely, but without the directness that musical singers bring – it felt contrived.

It was less of a problem for Claire Boulter who, I thought, was lovely as Carrie Pipperidge or Joseph Shovelton as Enoch Snow (he has done quite a lot of Gilbert and Sullivan) but Gillene Herbert as Julie had that problem, though she acted and did the dialogue with conviction and dignity.  Michael Rouse displayed much more of the style as Jigger Craigin.  The remainder were very strong and John Woodvine did a lovely turn as the Starkeeper.  I thought that the chorus did their turns wonderfully well: here we had the benefits of clear, accurate and very fine ensemble singing while acting convincingly and enjoying themselves: their big numbers came over really well.

So there’s lots going for it and it may be that the other cast has some stronger performances but, on this showing, I wouldn’t particularly class it as a “must see”.

This is the second year the Barbican has used a musical to fill August. For last year’s South Pacific, I was inundated with half price offers for it.  I was reassured by the fact that there were no such offers for this.   This wasn’t borne out.  When I came to pick up my Upper Circle tickets, I was offered an upgrade to some much better seats at the back of the stalls and it was clear that lots of other people were too.  This show was much better than the South Pacific which had obviously lost a lot of its Broadway glamour in the crossing and had received better reviews.  But the seat prices are high, the Barbican isn’t actually known as a musical venue and is a bit off the beaten track of people who might think of going to it.  I wonder if they’ll try to continue the tradition next year.