Music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Richard Wilbur, additional lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, John Latouche, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker and Leonard Bernstein, book adapted from Voltaire by Hugh Wheeler, freely adapt
English National Opera
Over 300 years after Voltaire wrote his satirical novel and 52 after Leonard Bernstein wrote the musical, Candide is finally making its ENO debut in a racy, modernised version first seen at La Scala in Milan.
Robert Carsen's spectacular new production mixes three different periods: the late 17th century of the original story, the mid-1950s when the musical was written and the present day, personified by a quintet of global leaders each of whom has been vilified in his own country. To this divided focus must be added a question as to whether Candide is a musical, an operetta or possibly even something more serious.
If there is one problem with the three-hour long evening, it is the intermittent failure of the different elements to cohere. That is certainly not the fault of the performers or set designer, Michael Levine. From the moment that the lights come up on an enormous 50-year-old TV filling the whole space and projecting images of perfect Americans, both the relatively ordinary and superstars such as JFK and Jackie, Marilyn and Elvis, the scene has been set.
However, rather than the United States the early scenes may take place in front of a White House but the country is the charmingly-named West Failure, apparently somewhere in Germanic Europe. There the delightfully laconic Voltaire, played by Alex Jennings, introduced us to the Kennedy-like President and his glamorous First Lady, two children Maximilian and Cunegonde and a poor little hanger-on called Candide, the perennial optimist of the musical's subtitle.
Love soon blossoms between Toby Spence's Candide and Cunegonde, in the circumstances bravely played by Anna Christy, who has the burden of taking on a part which, in the novel at least, is that of a girl renowned for her ugliness. The couple are suitably encouraged by their tutor, Professor Pangloss (Jennings again but this time with an American accent) who espouses the principle that underlies the evening that this is "the best of all possible worlds".
For the young couple though, it is a case of the old, old story as rich, proud parents will not allow their little girl to romance with a poor boy, let alone marry him.
A depressed hero toddles off to a horrific war the result of which is practically the extinction of the country. Miraculously, the young man is reunited with his love and soon enough, they make one of several anachronistic trips on the Titanic. The ship eventually leaves them in the New World - America, which, somewhat confusingly, is where we thought they were to start with.
After the interval, the story becomes suitably picaresque, as Candide tours the country somewhat aimlessly but subconsciously destined to meet up again with Cunegonde, by now looking the spit of Marilyn Monroe.
With mild philosophical interest, some excellent comedy and stunning sets, this was always likely to be a good evening. However, there is far more to Carsen's production than an updated fairytale. Anna Christy sings delightfully and trills dreamily to bring down the interval curtain. Toby Spence, while not sensational, carries off the title role successfully and they get great support from ENO's orchestra and chorus under conductor Rumon Gamba, on loan from the Iceland Symphony Orchestra.
While the leading couple act adequately, Alex Jennings excels and is matched by Beverley Klein who plays a scandalously comic little Old Lady. These two stage actors also sing more than passably on their Coliseum debuts. To all of this must be added some great dancing, well choreographed by Rob Ashford.
While the updating does not always work and the numerous scene changes eventually become a little wearing, the idea of playing an entertaining new version of what Leonard Bernstein described as a comic operetta at this venue must surely be applauded.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher