First published in 1759, Voltaire’s Candide was re-imagined for the concert stage by Leonard Bernstein in 1956. An operetta whose aim was to mock the belief that everything—literally, everything—is for the best, Candide was an ideal medium through which to critique the excesses of McCarthyism and the complacency of the Eisenhower administration in 1950’s US politics. On Sunday night, decades after its creation, the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) and London Symphony Chorus (LSC), conducted by Kristjan Järvi, proved that this same biting work can still strike a chord with an audience.
Rory Kinnear, the narrator who was meant to act outside of the story, nevertheless engaged with all of the characters in Candide, mocking them relentlessly. Cracking jokes about the absurdity of Voltaire’s picaresque scenarios, Kinnear’s snide remarks constantly punctuated the storyline. When describing Cunégonde’s arrangement with a rich Jew and the Cardinal Archibishop, Kinnear candidly remarked, ‘Cunégonde was ravaged repeatedly…inadvertently of course.’ And when Candide killed his cousin Maximillian—who miraculously reappeared after his death in the first act—Candide shouted ‘Inadvertently of course!’ This became Kinnear’s favourite joke, one that tied in nicely with the sardonic humour theme of the entire operetta. In fact without Kinnear, Voltaire’s original witty prose would have been utterly lost.
All of the soloists performed flawlessly. Candide (Andrew Staples), Cunégonde (Keira Duffy), Dr Pangloss (Jeremy Huw Williams), Maximilian (Marcus DeLoach), Paquette (Kristy Swift) and the Old Lady (Kim Criswell), among the many other soloists that performed Sunday night, brought each one of their wacky characters to life. The only drawback was that DeLoach and Swift did not have more of a role, because for the moments they were performing, their characters were clever, lively and full of wit. And when Criswell took to the stage as the Old Lady, the audience was both mesmerized and amused. Between her wild hair and ferocious double-tango, Criswell managed to play a woman both destitute and alluring.
Staples stayed true to Candide’s innocent nature throughout, never once feigning his character’s determined optimism; every time he sang Candide’s theme—an octave leap followed by two falling melodic steps—our hearts leapt, yearning to believe in Candide’s optimism, no matter how absurd.
Huw Williams, who played the preacher of cheerfulness, did a phenomenal job performing the peculiar Dr Pangloss. So much so, that when Huw Williams returned in Act Two as Martin, a slave and confirmed pessimist, it was explicitly clear that Martin was meant to be a character foil for Dr Pangloss. In ‘Words, Words, Words’, Huw Williams came off particularly strange, singing the cheerful melody from ‘The Best of All Possible Words’ but with lyrics that damned humanity, calling it absurd. Here, Huw Williams’ sinewy voice turned maniacal, showing us just how ludicrous blind optimism can be.
Duffy, performing Cunégonde, stole the show with her coloratura aria ‘Glitter and Be Gay’. A fiendishly challenging aria to perform, this piece is an hilarious parody of the traditional opera song. As Duffy adorns herself with jewels, claiming that she is bitterly unhappy despite her wealth of sparkling trinkets, her character becomes more excited, almost to the point of being agitated. Jumping from florid passages to sharp, staccato notes, bitter laughter to high E-flats, Duffy achieved the demanding satirical quality of this piece perfectly.
Even the London Symphony Chorus (LSC) had a personality all their own. In Act One, they were the villagers of Westphalia, burning in a church at the hands of the Bulgar Army; then they were the Spanish villagers that condemned Dr Pangloss to death in the auto-da-fé; they even tangoed behind the Old Lady as she twisted and twirled with her partners. In Act Two, the LSC took to mocking Candide, waving him farewell before his doomed voyage to the New World. Energetic and charismatic throughout, the LSC played an integral role in this comical operetta.
Taking full advantage of Candide’s ridiculous travels around the globe, Leonard Bernstein experimented with a variety of musical styles throughout this operetta, making for an extremely challenging and tiring musical work. There is a waltz and a gavotte, tango and jazz music, even remnants of traditional Italian opera and American broadway ballads. But no matter what the rhythm—6/4, 3/2, 2/2 or 4/4—the LSO kept the energy high and the performance exciting. At the end of the performance, it is no wonder Kristjan Järvi had such a wide smile on his face. A colossal achievement, the LSO, LSC and all of the soloists proved that Voltaire’s literary witticism and Bernstein’s candid musical flair still resonates today.