Opera Review







Opera by Leonard Bernstein

Director: Robert Carson


Conductor: Rumon Gamba


Choreographer: Rob Ashford


Set Design: Michael Levine


Costume Design: Buki Shiff


London Coliseum


25 June – 12 July, 2008







A review by Barry Grantham for EXTRA! EXTRA!


It would be nice to write, as Dr Pangloss would doubtless have done, that Candide’ at the Coliseum is ‘the best of all possible shows, in this best of all possible theatres’.  This would not be entirely unsustainable.  The Coliseum, London’s pride and joy, fills the second requirement, and ‘Candide?’  Well, it is vocally splendid. As ‘Cunegonde’, Anna Christy is a soprano of sparkling clarity and Toby Spence in the name part, has a voice of such sweet…   I am constrained to quote the Bard to cover my own inadequacy: “Such harmony is in immortal souls; but whilst this muddy vesture of decay Doth grossly close it in, we can not hear it.”  Well, until then we can thankfully hear Mr Spence. And the orchestra under the firm but sensitive baton of Rumon Gamba is exemplary, never for a moment overpowering the singers (a fault I have noticed in other recent productions). There is a masterly comic performance from Beverley Klein as the ‘Old Lady’.   The sets are clever, and there are lots of them and the costumes expensive (and there are lots of those too). There is lots of dancing, and the director truly never gives us a dull moment.  What more could we ask?  Personally, I would have liked a little less!  One less Monty Pythonesque scenic joke, one less Gilbertian lyric (clever though they were, especially one tracing the pedigree of a dose of the clap), one less ‘Oh so camp’ showbiz routine, and one half hour off the three hour playing time.  

Here I wax philosophical:  The Theatre is an eternal battleground between the theatre of Imagination and the theatre of Spectacle. When spectacle wins; when the Machinist dominates the author, and the Prop-master over burdens the actor, then theatre is in decline.  Compare Ben Johnson when he writes for a Masque with his Alchemist or Volpone.  Compare what we know of Shakespeare at the original Globe (yes, and the new Globe too) with Henry Irving’s over burdened productions at the Lyceum. Or if you think I’m straying too far from Opera and its goals, compare what we know of the Bayreuth ‘Ride of the Valkyrie’ with more recent paired-down productions.   There is room for all forms from Gretowski’s Poor Theatre to the present ‘Candide’. But let us hope that this move toward unnecessary and expensive spectacle is not a trend.

My boss here, Mary Couzens, likes me to give a scenario outline when reviewing Ballet or Opera, so I’ll do my best:
‘Candide’ is based on a novel by Voltaire, which saw the light of day in 1759  It is a Picaresque tale in the style of the period, in which a young hero or heroine makes a journey into life, in search of fame, fortune, or love,  But in ‘Candide’s’ case he finds nothing but cruel misadventure.  Into this format Voltaire pours all the venom, spleen, disgust, hatred of establishment and demand for reform, at his considerable command. I read it when I was sixteen and thought it brilliant. Now, perhaps, I might find the satire a little unsubtle, as I do much of the present adaptation.   Best perhaps, from this point of view, is the sequence of projected images from the American Dream – a world of happy families, of husbands off to work in shiny new Cadillacs, of wives in the kitchen, surrounded by appliances their mothers would never have dreamed of.  In come the kids all health and happiness; all accompanied by Bernstein’s spirited overture.

This over, we are introduced by Mons. Voltaire in immaculate 18th century coat, breeches and wig, to an all American boy called Candide - because he is so candid. Then toaPresidential family - Kennedy and Jackie look-a-likes, (though the location is called ‘Westphalia’!)  They have a daughter called Cunegonde and a maid-servant called Paquette.  Voltaire becomes the family tutor, Pangloss, in a neat on-stage costume change, whose philosophy is: ‘Everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.’ (a powerful duel-role performance from Alex Jennings).  Candide is caught kissing Cunegonde and sent packing.   He becomes a soldier, is accused of desertion, sentenced to death, but pardoned. War breaks out and every one is killed. But not Candide. He finds the raped and mutilated body of Cunegonde on the battlefield.  Pangloss is also found alive, but suffering from syphilis which he caught from Paquette. An Anabaptist helps them and invites them aboard his ship, which sinks. They reach dry land but an earthquake flattens the country. They are found guilty of something and hanged. Cunegonde somehow comes to life again and becomes a film star and Candide none the worse for his hanging, kills two movie moguls and…..Oh, you make it up for yourselves; it couldn’t be any more ridiculous. (and Voltaire thought Shakespeare unsophisticated!)

I did see the original British production, which they set in Voltaire’s time and as such it seemed remote from the cares and troubles of our day.  I was disappointed in it and it didn’t have much success here in Britain, so I do applaud the updating of the present production to the 1950’s where much more of the satire is relevant.

Lastly, a few words of praise: for sound designer, Nick Lidster – presumable dialogue was amplified but no seam – quite brilliant – every word clearly audible. Lighting equally good; we got ‘atmosphere’ without having problems of seeing the actors.  Praise too for the stage crew; perfect management of the most scenery-overloaded production I’ve seen.   Choreography mixed – some very poor bits, like the battle scene – and some mundane show business routines, but there is a very beautiful massed ‘pas de deux’ from eight couples in the ‘Old Lady’ scene. .  (Can’t recall the song – that’s the trouble, none of Bernstein’s music for ‘Candide’ is memorable.)   There is also very effective choreographic support for Anna Christy (Cunegonde) as she first appears, all shocking pink, in her film star incarnation. Well done too to the talented and beautiful Miss Christy.   


Dates:      June 27, 28 at 7.15 (plus matinee at 2pm) July 2 ,4 & 5(plus
matinee at 2pm.) 6 (matinee only at 3.00pm.) 9,11.12 (plus
matinee at 2.pm.) at 7.15.

Venue:     ENO at the Coliseum, St Martin’s Lane, London WC2N 4ES

Box Office: 0871 911 0200    


Tickets:  £10 - £80 Ring box office for concessions.







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