Candide: an 18th century tale for our time

New Zealand Opera
Music by Leonard Bernstein, Lyrics by Hugh Wheeler after Voltaire
With the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra and Freemasons New Zealand Opera Chorus
Auckland Town Hall
March 23-25

The French writer François-Marie Arouet, known by his nom de plume, Voltaire, is best remembered for a couple of enduring quotes such as "If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him," and "I do not agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

He was one of the great liberal thinkers of the 18th century, writing dozens of books but only one is still read – his satirical novel Candide. The book was published in 1759 and is still recognised as dealing with the great ideological issues of his day.

Leonard Bernstein originally wrote his opera version of the work, Candide, in the 1950s with a libretto by Lillian Hellman, who used the tale as an attack on McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities Committee. Later Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim rewrote it, modifying its political approach. Along the way several other notable American writers and lyricists had input including Richard Wilbur, John La Touche and Dorothy Parker.

The work still has resonance in the Age of Trump, the wars and disasters of the 21st century.

The novel's satirical subtitle is "Optimism" and tells the adventures of a naive, young man who believes what the philosophers tell him about life, especially his tutor, Dr Pangloss, a disciple of the great Leibniz who teaches this is the best of all possible worlds.

In the opening of the opera, Cunegonde, the beautiful daughter of the baron in whose castle Candide lives, seduces him. He is exiled from the castle by the baron and travels the world, witnessing, or involved in persecution, massacres, torture, rape, enslavement, corruption, deceit, murder, earthquake, shipwreck and disease. But he remains throughout a convinced optimist, loyal to the teaching of Dr Pangloss and of Leibniz, forever finding a silver lining in every cloud.

Director Stuart Maunder recalls his introduction to Bernstein’s opera when, in 1978, he abandoned his legal career for the bright lights of opera, joining the Australian Opera as a member of the stage management team.

“A disposable income allowed me to buy every LP of every musical ever imported; Leonard Bernstein's Candide in the 1974 Harold Prince production was one of them.”

“It was a revelation. The miraculous transformations of the Voltaire/Pangloss, the thickly accented Old Lady and her one buttock, the saucy Paquette, the vain Maximilian, the ‘serially top-noted’ Cunegonde and the ever-optimistic Candide made for a bizarre, rollercoaster of a show. It was ebullient, joyous, silly, glorious stuff. It was termed a revival but I later learned in reality it was almost a new show … the book had been totally rewritten, the orchestral forces reduced, much music cut. And then I heard the original 1956 Broadway cast featuring the full orchestra and classical legit voices. This was Broadway operetta with a capital ‘O’.”

Some 60 years after the original production, Mmr Maunder is directing a Candide that "marries the irreverence and joy of Hugh Wheeler’s 1974 script with the full orchestral version of the Leonard Bernstein score in all its audacity and brilliance.”

“This collaboration with Auckland Arts Festival, this 'best of all possible worlds' boasts a sumptuous design by production designer Roger Kirk and lighting Designer Trudy Dalgliesh. Choreographer Yvette Lee hones the terpsichorean talents of our crew, and sound designer Jim Atkins works his ‘enhancement’ magic on the Auckland Town Hall’s renowned acoustics. Leading a seriously brilliant comic cast, we have Australian show business legend Reg Livermore as Voltaire/Dr Pangloss, James Benjamin Rodgers as Candide and Amelia Berry as his love, Cunegonde. As if that wasn’t enough, Jacqueline Dark, Kanen Breen, James Harrison, Byron Coll and Robert Tucker, together with the Freemasons New Zealand Opera Chorus take on a cornucopia of villainous, heroic and deliciously diseased characters.”

“Auckland Town Hall’s Great Hall will be transformed into a colourful, fantastical world, with the orchestra on stage and the singers using an expanded performance area.”

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