Welsh National Opera at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff *****
Closest of all his works to his huge heart, Leonard Bernstein’s Candide has been a victim of the many midwives present at its gestation. Jealousies, egos, conflicting linguistic styles, all contributed towards a massive confusion as to whether Bernstein’s more-than-wonderful score should be considered a musical, an opera, or an operetta. There currently exist at least seven performing versions of this theatrical presentation of Voltaire’s novella satirising mid-18th century philosophers such as Leibniz claiming everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.
Welsh National Opera have raised two fingers to all this farrago, recreating the piece in the most engaging way possible, with production values more imaginative than one could have envisioned, musical standards unsurpassable, and a total impact which hit a packed audience with delight.
Textual differences matter to us nerds. The gambling scene was in Constantinople rather than in my score’s Venice, so we lost the witty, ingratiating Venice Gavotte (unless my ears blinked). The audience will have been robbed of a treat here, but there was so much else to enthral.
The orchestra was set up on stage behind a gauze, upon which were projected the most amazing and inventive animations, worlds beyond anything I have ever encountered, and which miraculously slotted in with three levels of steps which were the only stage-furniture, apart from a park bench unobtrusively brought on from time to time. The huge cast emerged from these visual illusions with total ease and effect.
Karen Kamensek conducted a fizzing account of this eclectic score, ranging in its allusions from Verdi to Gilbert and Sullivan, and all around the spectrum (Ravel’s La Valse, Argentinian tango, Broadway ballads, and so much else), and achieved an impressive rapport between stage and her superb WNO Orchestra, thanks to the resource of closed-circuit TV, screens discreetly placed in the auditorium.
In front of all this, a huge chorus delivered with vigour and characte in James Bonas’ production, emerging to assume individual characterisations, then returning to add to the general bustle. The brilliance of the choreography was an added delight.
Among the principals, Ed Lyon was an appealing, slightly bewildered Candide, Madeleine Shaw a superbly cynical, fix-it Old Lady, and, above all, Claudia Boyle was a superb Cunegonde, spiritedly rising above all the indignities inflicted upon her, engagingly disingenuous, and absolutely magnificent in the coloratura of her spectacular “Glitter and be gay”. The only problem was Gillian Bevan’s Doctor Pangloss, effectively sung, but in whose narration we missed the resonance of a male voice.
Candide was an example of all the strengths Welsh National Opera has bult over many years. Now the box-ticking, inept pygmies of the Arts Council (of England, no less) are proposing cuts to its funding, threatening the configuration of the chorus and orchestra. Levelling-up? I don’t think so.
But we all know those philistines who somehow have a job overseeing the arts feel opera is an elite pastime. How can we ever get through to them?
*July 12 Alexandra Theatre Birmingham 7.30pm.