Robert Carsen’s production of Bernstein’s Candide has swung around Europe, creating a stir all along the way. If some of the contemporary imagery caused ructions in Paris and Milan, there’s little that’s sacred or not up for grabs here, and London audiences can sit back and enjoy the explosive cocktail of 18th Century satire, mid 20th Century musical comedy and up-to-the-minute re-invention.
The underlying feeling in Voltaire’s Candide is a deep sense of anger and, while Leonard Bernstein and his first librettist Lillian Hellman were clearly commenting on the political climate of their own times (late fifties America), it’s not an impulse that sits easily with the conventions of musical comedy. Inevitably there was sanitisation and romanticisation of Voltaire’s savage satire in the treatment, and what Carsen seeks to do is put some of the sting back in the tale. By and large he succeeds brilliantly.
Voltaire’s chief target was the Optimistic philosophy of Leibniz and his wit tears like a razor through the unpitying belief that all is for the best and so it doesn’t matter what happens (mainly to others). Clear parallels with contemporary foreign policy then, where the deaths of thousands (as long as they’re foreigners) is seen as a price well worth paying for a twisted concept of freedom.
With audacity and unending inventiveness, Carsen updates everything to recent times, starting with a post-war America where The Best of All Possible Worlds is the American Dream, with no stains on the horizon no Korea, no McCarthy, just apple pie, prosperity and wide-eyed innocence. Again and again, Carsen comes up with imagery that is both apt to Voltaire’s world and resonates with a contemporary audience, as Candide’s world crashes around him and he goes on a picaresque rollercoaster ride that buffets him between disappointment, horror and constant reversal of fortune.
To fit his vision, Carsen and his long-time dramaturg Ian Burton have re-written much of the script. There are trip-ups of logic and casualties of subtlety along the way. Setting sail from America in search of, er, America doesn’t make much sense and the ironic significance of Candide’s dissatisfaction with El Dorado is lost. With the fabled land now an oilfield in Texas, the emphasis is completely on wealth rather than harmonious living. Voltaire’s Six Deposed Kings are converted into ex-World leaders (in the case of Bush, one soon to be) and the sight of Blair, Berlusconi, Chirac, Putin et al cavorting in their underpants while floating on a sea of spilled oil feels like a pantomime scene too far.
But if there’s some shoehorning going on, there’s more hitting of the target than missing. The stars of the show may be Bernstein’s brilliant score and Carsen’s flamboyant concept but there are some stellar turns from the homegrown cast. Actor Alex Jennings is a towering strength as Voltaire, driving the action along, popping into character as reality-blind Pangloss and arch-pessimist Martin, and showing an adept skill in song and dance. Blond-haired Toby Spence is ideally guileless as Candide, and Anna Christy follows her recent personal success as Donizetti’s Lucia by taking Cunegonde’s coloratura in her stride. Beverley Klein is a colourful Old Lady and Bonaventura Bottone is sterling support as a number of key secondary characters.
Rumon Gamba conducts the ENO band with exuberance and the excellent choreography is stylishly executed by dancers and chorus, while Michael Levine’s sets create some visually brilliant set-pieces. There’s no faulting the performance and it’s only the sometimes uneasy fit between source material and creators’ and director’s differing concepts that just prevent this from being an all-out hit.