What fortuitous programming it was by Victorian Opera to have a new production of Candide (1956) open just as interest in the composer of its delicious score peaks in the wake of Bradley Cooper’s biopic Maestro. Just as fortuitously, the production is a triumph; an auspicious start for incoming artistic director, Stuart Maunder. It makes as strong a case as one might for the value of opera companies taking on such repertoire.
Unlike West Side Story (1957), the stage work for which Bernstein is best known, Candide (first presented on Broadway) is much more of a music-theatre/opera hybrid. It was not an immediate stage success, which led the composer and a growing team of librettists to rework it several times over subsequent years. In part that speaks to the sheer cheek of the original idea, turning Voltaire’s eponymous, meandering, satirical novella into a work of music theatre. So many things would seem to speak against it as a suitable topic for such an adaption.
Shortly before his death in 1990, Bernstein recalled that he had been drawn to the subject matter (which had been suggested to him by playwright Lillian Hellman) because he perceived parallels between Voltaire’s age and his own. Whereas his French Enlightenment forebear had been particularly scandalised, for instance, by the politically sanctioned cruelties and hypocrisies of the Inquisition, for Bernstein it was modern-day McCarthyism.
Voltaire’s other principal target, Leibnizian optimism (the idea that, because of God’s omnipotence and benevolence we must live in the best of best possible worlds), may have less obvious modern-day similes. But they are there nonetheless, for instance in how, in the face of our own calamities, we tend to continue to deny the extent of our agency in the world, deferring instead to secular deities such as ‘the economy’ or ‘market forces’.
Here, director Dean Bryant, designer Dann Barber, and lighting designer Matt Scott encourage us to make links with Voltaire’s original work through employing a visual design that cleverly combines eighteenth-century ‘silhouettes’, as Bryant himself describes them, ‘with cast-offs from our own’. An iconic-looking Australian caravan, for instance, is cleverly repurposed variously as a castle, a hospital, a Parisan nightclub, an Inquisitor’s court, an Argentinian villa, and as a stage-within-a-stage. Suburban shopping trolleys make a cameo appearance as sheep laden with Amazonian gold. It all looks as if William Hogarth had turned up to design the sets for Muriel’s Wedding.
And it works. While I had slight misgivings about whether the knowingness of it all might lead the audience to dwell too much on the thrill (and fun) of recognition and thus miss the point that Voltaire also wanted us to critique what he was representing, that’s ultimately a problem that haunts all good satire.
Notwithstanding the mix of performers from operatic and music-theatre backgrounds, all on stage were commendable in realising this directorial vision, even if the mix of vocal techniques sometimes jarred on the ears a little. This also speaks to the inherently protean nature of both the score and libretto. In the title role, Lyndon Watts demonstrated in spades why he is now one of our most sought-after stage performers. Watts gives Candide an appropriately affecting character with his syrupy tenor voice and impressive dynamic range. Katherine Allen gave what might well be a career-defining performance as Candide’s charismatically wayward love interest, Cunégonde; frankly it is hard to imagine her famously virtuosic aria ‘Glitter and be Gay’ being sung or acted better.
Euan Fistrovic Doidge camped it up riotously, to great effect, as Maximilian; Maria Mercedes was a suitably alluring ‘Old Lady’ (no lazy ageism here!), and Melaine Bird was a suitably coquettish Paquette. Eddie Muliaumaseali’i, blessed with a baritone voice that is both sweet and powerful in equal measure, invested Cacambo with just the right amount of magisterial humanity, and tenors Troy Sussman and Alexander Lewis (the latter of whom is set to perform the title role in concert for the State Opera South Australia and the State Theatre Company South Australia in May) romped through the multiple roles they needed to inhabit, with great comic effect and obvious relish.
Throughout, Victorian Opera’s chorus proffered great vocal and dramatic support, though when it was placed behind the orchestra (which was set on the rear of the stage) I was less convinced of the need for their distracting choreography. The stage movement on the front of the stage from choreographer Freya List, however, was terrific, always efficient and effective.
Leading them all on their merry/miserable way was Eddie Perfect in stage-stealing top form as the ill-fortuned philosopher Dr Pangloss and (after the version of the libretto by Hal Prince) Voltaire himself, which underlines Pangloss’s dramatic function as both the engineer of the ensemble’s misfortunes, and exemplar of the lessons they come to learn.
Sound designer Samuel Moxham did a good job of balancing all these stage forces. There was still the problem that besets such venues, where the comprehensive miking of cast and orchestra is necessary and where the overall sonic effect tends to drift towards a constant ‘mezzo forte’. Subtle timbres are compressed resulting in a sound more akin to that one experiences at a Myer Music Bowl concert. Conductor Ben Northey delivered a consistently taut and characterful performance from an Orchestra Victoria also in top form.
Is Candide an opera or is it a musical? The academic might still want to ponder that question, but after this production, and with that marvellous closing chorus ‘Make our Garden Grow’ (which also serves, alongside the finale of Mahler’s Second Symphony, as one of the great signifiers of redemption in Maestro) ringing in my ears, I left knowing that Candide is without doubt great lyric theatre.
Candide (Victorian Opera) continues at the Palais Theatre in Melbourne until 10 February 2024. Performance attended: 8 February.