Simon Hale watches the Welsh National Opera at the Alexandra Theatre.
Showing picaresque adventures around the world on a theatre stage would normally involve numerous scene changes to make the story understandable. Welsh National Opera delivered all the action as well as the songs and dances in only two hours in an ingeniously different way in its frenetically thrilling new production of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide.
From the start of the James Bonas-directed show – as much Broadway-style musical as operetta – on tour at Birmingham’s Alexandra Theatre for one night only you could see there was no need for scenery as fun images created by animator Gregoire Pont were projected on an opaque gauze curtain.
Whether static or briskly moving, the images cleverly and wittily corresponded with the implausible storyline and experiences, whether showing the main characters riding from Paris to Cadiz on a horse stretched out for three, driving through an Amazonian jungle in a plush sedan, or setting off from Surinam with golden sheep in tow in a hot-air balloon inflated by a bicycle pump.
The illegitimate son of a baron, Candide encounters shipwrecks, earthquakes, disease and wars on his Gulliverian-type journey from Westphalia to Constantinople as he seeks the key to happiness, having been brought up to believe that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds”.
Voltaire wrote the novella on which the show is based in 1758 as a rebuff to the current belief in optimism espoused by the philosopher Leibnitz. Three years earlier the Lisbon earthquake and tsunami killed more than 40,000 people and led to an auto-da-fe that involved the burning of heretics by the Inquisition – to prevent further deaths and destruction so it insisted.
Recreating that auto-da-fe for laughs was one of the more gruesome and insensitive depictions of violence in the show, with murder and rape almost incidental, but other set pieces were slickly entertaining especially Cunegonde’s big song, Glitter and be Gay, sung with Paris road-sweepers.
Ed Lyon was a suitably naïve Candide, but it was Claudia Boyle as Cunegonde the object of his affections that was the standout star in a show that had no weak links among the main characters, who included Madeleine Shaw’s one-buttocked chaperone, Mark Nathan as a crossing-dressing sibling Maximillian and Francesca Saracino as an easy led astray maidservant Paquette.
Gillian Bevan came over with clarity and excellent dry humour as the narrator who also tripled up as Pangloss, a sage and a beggar, stepping easily from one costume to the next all designed by Nathalie Pallandre in a colourful mix of 18th century and modern.
With the show designed for touring, the orchestra performed the tuneful Bernstein score with verve under the direction of Karen Kamensek – although it was disappointing that the musicians were almost hidden upstage. It was good to see the orchestra’s contribution suitably acknowledged after the barnstorming finale with full chorus in the memorable big number Make Our Garden Grow.
Welsh National Opera will return to Birmingham in the autumn with performances of Ainadamar by Osvaldo Golijov on November 7th, La Traviata by Verdi on November 9th and 11th, and Play Opera Live Space Spectacular also on November 11th, all at Birmingham Hippodrome (wno.org.uk).
Pics – Johan Persson