Leonard Bernstein’s 1950s' Voltaire-based opera/operetta/musical hybrid hedges its bets uneasily between theatre and opera-house, but on the strength of its music – wonderful tunes, an Overture as life-enhancing as that to The Marriage of Figaro, brilliant orchestration – it is too great a flawed masterpiece to pass by. In the UK alone, it has thrived, with productions at the National Theatre, Scottish Opera (on which Bernstein formed his final version), ENO, a very effective one at the Menier Chocolate Factory, and earlier this Bernstein centenary year, a staging by Iford Arts. This last stretched over three-and-a-half hours, which gives an idea of the huge amount of material that supplies enough versions and editions to make Bruckner’s Symphonies seem straightforward.
This LSO version was devised by Garnett Bruce and Marin Alsop, both of whom worked closely with Bernstein, and it was broadly the composer’s so-called definitive version of 1989, although numbers such as ‘The Sheep’s Song’ were reinstated, and Candide’s great Italianate aria ‘Nothing more than this’ cut, presumably in keeping with the generally up-beat and relentlessly cynical approach.
Perhaps a concert-hall semi-staging is a safe halfway house, with a narrator covering the growing feeling that Candide’s travels and adventures quickly turn into one damn thing after another as Voltaire’s anti-hero debunks the curdling Enlightenment optimistic idée fixe that “everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds”. Thomas Allen’s Narrator reined in Pangloss’s positivism in style – he referred to Candide as a “complete bastard”, with good reason – and he managed the oracular, satirical torrent of words in style, but the acres of monologue and dialogue did sag from time to time, not helped by some erratic amplification. Candide the work was born out of McCarthyism, but contemporary parallels were generally avoided, apart from a casual, virtue-signalling aside from Allen about the benefits or otherwise of nation states, which made its mark with the audience.
Leonardo Capalbo’s big tenor is quite a showstopper at full tilt, and he deployed it magnificently in Candide’s music, especially the Lament and the Broadway-style ‘Make our garden grow’ conclusion; he also kept us guessing as to Candide’s true nature. Jane Archibald, a soprano of sterling technique and laconic humour, seized the moment with spectacular singing in Cunegonde’s coloratura high-jinks of ‘Glitter and be gay’. Anne Sofie von Otter expanded the cameo role of the Old Lady into something much bigger – she had great success with ‘I am easily assimilated’ – and although her ‘We are women’ duet with Cunegonde went on a bit, it gave her fans more of a chance to appreciate her qualities. Thomas Atkins and Marcus Farnsworth slipped in and out of eight characters as if greased, scoring highly with Vanderdendur’s (Atkins) and Maximilian’s (Farnsworth) solos, and there was an enchanting Paquette from Carmen Artaza. Five singers from the Guildhall School shared out fifteen roles and entered into the spirit and eccentricities of Brice’s enthusiastic comic staging with great gusto.
There’s a video of Bernstein conducting the LSO in Candide at the Barbican Hall from 1989, the year before he died, when he seemed to be on top form, and there have been at least two concert performances since then (with Michael Tilson Thomas and Kristjan Järvi), so the LSO has form in this score, and it and Marin Alsop were the overall heroes of the evening. The playing produced that unmistakable sheen of glamour and style, bags of both, and Alsop steered the music faultlessly from low comedy to opera ecstasy with unflagging affection and bite.