The Edinburgh Festival turns 60 this year – happy birthday – and an exuberant concert staging of Bernstein’s Candide kicked the new season into life. It’s a tremendously difficult work to bring off for, while we see the composer at his most musically imaginative, the diversions of compositional style and disorientating plot swerves can give the impression of turgidity. But scrap that – what Candide does have is spade-loads of sizzling melody.
Arguably, a concert staging is preferable. We can brush over the confusing switches of time and place, be rid of necessarily breathless set changes and concentrate further on the superlative score. West Side Story, composed a year later in 1957, may be the composer’s masterpiece, but even that I feel does not top the earlier work’s glittering orchestration and melodic abandon. Bernstein’s homage to Western musical traditions is rich and florid, and the score’s much-noted musical parodying (of Purcell, Bellini, Offenbach, Wagner and more) is ingeniously done and highly effective.
This performance had a strongly beating heart in the shape of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. The playing wasn’t always perfect – the Overture was a little imprecise, the woodwind struggled at times to introduce enough swing and bite into their important writing – but it was gutsy and it became progressively more exiting. What a pleasure it was to hear such movingly frail violins in Candide’s final aria and such ringing, secure trumpets in the Act Two Finale. The Auto-Da-Fe sequence in Act One was violently grotesque. Conductor Robert Spano chose some pretty fast tempi and some pretty slow tempi, but it all seemed to work. Just about.
Thomas Allen, doubling as the Narrator and Pangloss, is evidently far past his vocal prime. So what? His cheeky yet eloquent delivery and comic references to popular culture were perfect for the role, especially when coupled with such theatrical understanding, honed over a lifetime in the theatre. His alert, twinkling narration eagerly urged the performance on. Candide himself was capably played by American tenor Matthew Polenzani. That voice too is not what it once was, and Polenzani struggled to project about the full orchestra. Nevertheless, his legato is smooth and easy, and the laments were meltingly shaped. His Cunegonde, Laura Aikin, acted well throughout and used her voice thoughtfully, but the big number, Glitter and be Gay (parodying Charles Gounod), never truly suggested hysteria, except perhaps in the jarring portamentos. For all her accurate coloratura, Aikin did not flaunt a final edge of charisma when it was most needed.
Ronald Nairne authoritatively headed the ‘B team’, sat to stage right; Kathryn Harries was a treat to watch in the role of the Old Lady as she gargled her Spanish vowels and spat out her Spanish consonants. The Edinburgh Festival Chorus were strong in the chorales (another parody, this time of the Baroque style), and there will always be some fuzziness in the brisker passages with a group this size. The whole was not eye-opening, but it was fun to watch and not a terrible way to start Jonathan Mills’ first Edinburgh Festival.
The production was sponsored by Scottish & Newcastle plc.