When one goes to see an opera one hardly expects such an extravagant mix of song, acting, dance, art and music. In every sense this work demands everything it can of all its participants.
To begin at the beginning. The show begins with the orchestra, always visible at the back of the stage, delivering an overture full of jazzy brass and tweeting woodwind which immediately sets a mood of fun and games. Karen Kamensek, the conductor, sets the mood and pace.
As the orchestra moves from overture to introduction of the principal characters cartoon outlines appear against the gauze curtain, set a little way back from the front of the stage. These depict the interior of a baron’s castle. Here we meet the principal characters: Candide himself – the name means innocent, honest – like our word ‘candid’ – played by Ed Lyon, his half sister Cunegonde [Ffion Edwards] and brother Maximillian [Mark Nathan], the maid servant Paquette [Francesca Saracino] and the teacher of the three youngsters Dr Pangloss [Gillian Bevan]. These characters appear throughout the whole operetta. For though they appear to die many times, no one in this operetta really dies; they reappear in different parts of the world in different guises. They are survivors.
Bernstein dubbed Candide a comic operetta. It is more than comic, it is a fantasy brought to life – something that could have come straight from the invention of such as Monty Python, full of innuendo, acting of the broadest kind and satirical digs not just at the eighteenth century world of Voltaire but at the America of the 1950s when Bernstein conceived of the project. With the troubles that assail us all now it serves just as well in underlining what the present offers us on a global scale.
And of course, the piece, which carries us from some imagined German state to France, Portugal, Spain, Mexico, the Amazon jungle and Constantinople shows us how little the world has changed. Whatever century or country we are in there are wars, man’s inhumanity to man, racism, sexism and corruption of the ruling classes. Nothing changes except the costumes that clothe the participants. Perhaps that is why the cast often wear an extraordinary mix of garments, echoing every century from Voltaire’s time to the present day.
The cartoons are witty adjuncts used throughout the show, allowing there to be a flow as the characters are swept from country to country, which no amount of ‘real’ scenery could have managed without seriously holding up the action. These cartoons, animated by Gregoire Pont, become an integral and very popular part of the show. Each scene depicted is full of life and little extra touches – a beetle crawling from one side to another – a cat walking along a balustrade – sheep falling in slow motion down a waterfall in the Amazon, all rendered with humour and expressiveness.
The only downside of these animations, which often fill the whole gauze with detail, is the disappearance of the orchestra, still there onstage but often merely a background and sometimes barely visible. They are a fine orchestra and this was a pity, I felt – but with such a complex and busy show, I cannot think of a solution that would have worked. They would have been just as invisible below the stage in the pit.
It isn’t just the animations that cast the orchestra into the shade but the sheer numbers of characters. It is a huge cast many of whom play multiple characters as we are whizzed from place to place in the world, the one linking factor between every country being the corruption of those in power, the dreadful way that the women are treated [though, used to such treatment, all the women are stoical about the way they are used as sex objects], and the terrible toll that war and extreme religions exact. But though the facts are grim so light-hearted is the approach that it is only afterwards that we recognise the cynical exposure of truths that are the same today as in the past.
The cast attack their roles with unfailing gusto and energy. When I first attended operas, thirty or more years ago, acting wasn’t really expected. It was all about the singing. In contrast, every one of the singer/actors/dancers in Candide multi-task convincingly, clearly enjoying every excess. And the dancers were fabulous.
Particularly effective scenes include the auto-da-fe, where powerful music and singing combine with black costumes, gruesome characters hanging from crosses in the background, the burning of Dr Pangloss in a clever video of super-imposed flames, plus the whipping of Candide to create an impression of horror. In contrast to that is the scene of debauchery set in the ruler of Montevideo’s sleazy palace, where sexy scantily-clad dancers with bored expressions contrast with the plight of Cunegonde and the worldly-wise ‘Old Woman’, a past beauty who has seen it all before, and more. Always the music cleverly sets the scene and in no other opera I know of has the orchestra had to deal with such a wide variety of styles as we travel with them around the world.
Some characters deserve particular mention. Ffion Edwards as Cunegonde, the girl Candide loves throughout, has a beautiful voice with exquisite high notes and manages to be both sexy and somehow innocent and charming at the same time. It as if Candide’s own innocence rubs off on her and ultimately redeems her. The ‘Old Woman’ is humorous in her rendering – with a hilarious guttural Russian accent – of her sordid life story, [in which she has lost one of her buttocks]! Her main scene is a tour de force.
But they are all good. From the chorus, who manage their many changes of role, with aplomb, to Candide himself who retains his innocent belief in ‘the best of all possible worlds’ until what he experiences forces him to face up to its seamier underside.
For that is the message we are left with, which Candide and his lady love embrace: that there is no best of all possible worlds. Dr Pangloss who, at the beginning taught this to his young pupils, is wrong. Life is hardship and hard work but, tackle it with Candide’s boundless optimism, and there is hope for the future after all.
I’ve enjoyed watching [and reviewing] the Welsh National Opera over a number of years and many contrasting shows. This operetta tests the versatility of the musicians as much as it does the whole creative and performing team. And team it certainly is. The whole show pulls together to create a sprawling and inventive riot of fun which looks as if everyone is as enjoying it as much as the audience.
Welsh National Opera have taken on an extraordinarily difficult task but, like Candide himself, they have prevailed and carried us through its many moods and vagaries. I thoroughly recommend it.
This article was previously published on Lark Reviews.