NZ Opera's Candide a splendid production with a major problem

Candide by Leonard Bernstein
Auckland Town Hall

Leonard Bernstein originally wrote his opera version of Voltaire’s Candide in the 1950’s using a libretto by Lillian Hellman that 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 Dorothy Parker.

With Candide Voltaire railed against puritanical snobbery, phoney moralism, inquisitorial attacks on the individual and the problems of religious zealotry, themes which still have resonance in the Age of Trump.

The opera’s subtitle is A Sumptuous Romp through the Best of All Possible Worlds. It’s a phrase from the opera trotted out every time fate intervenes, and someone is lost, found, swindled, dies or faces any of life’s trials.

The picaresque story is a Mozartian pantomime paralleling Swift's Gulliver’s Travels and the works of Smollett and Sterne. It tells of 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 that this is the best of all possible worlds.

In the opening of the opera Candide and Cunegonde, the beautiful daughter of the baron in whose castle Candide lives have a passionate liaison. 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 his tutor Dr Pangloss and of Leibniz, forever finding a silver lining in every cloud.

The work was staged in the round on a platform in the middle of the Auckland Town Hall with the Auckland Philharmonia and the Freemasons Chorus in 18th-century garb and wigs on the stage. There were minimal sets and props but the principals were attired in some elaborate and sumptuous outfits, providing some dramatic shocks of colour and design on stage.

Bernstein's score is superb, drawing on the European dance forms such as the gavotte, waltz and polka along with bel canto arias, Gilbert & Sullivan-style comedy, grand operas such Der Rosenkavalier and musicals – the overture could have easily come from West Side Story. 

The principals were uniformly faultless, showing the superb voice and acting skills necessary to pull off the demanding roles.

As Candide. James Benjamin Rodgers. with his cheerful, ingenuous voice. gave a splendid performance as the naive superhero and fitted well into the pantomime style of the production.

Amelia Berry’s Cunegonde handled the full range of singing required of her role, including the operatic high notes.

As Maximilian, James Harrison was an excellent self-obsessed dandy with voice and mannerisms to match.

Natasha Wilson was a lively Paquette while Jacqueline Dark gave a spirited performance and her Spanish performance was worthy of the greatest Carmen.

As the Narrator/Voltaire/Dr Pangloss Reg Livermore skilfully moved between roles, guiding the audience with a mixture of faux philosophy, flippant psychology and outrageous comedy.

The choreography gave an additional comic frisson, notably the Dance of the Inquisitors, which could have come from a Monty Python sketch.

While it was splendid production, NZ Opera managed to shoot itself in the foot again.

Two years ago, it performed Nixon in China as part of the Auckland Arts Festival in the same venue. Back then it made the mistake of not providing surtitles, ruining the audience’s appreciation of one of the great contemporary operas. The audience was disappointed and disillusioned and the company should have learned – but the company didn’t. So even though the singers were miked and most of the time the words were clear and accessible, there were several occasions when the words were lost in the babble of sound and the music. This was a disservice to the singers, the audience and to Bernstein.



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