Candide is a satirical operetta: it’s possible to play it light and airy, letting the joy and pizzazz of Bernstein’s music pull an entertaining mask over the acidity of Voltaire’s wit. Alternatively, you can do what Ole Anders Tandberg has done for Royal Swedish Opera, which is to go for the jugular.

Niklas Björling Rygert, Miriam Treichl, Joel Annmo, Elin Rombo
© Royal Swedish Opera | Sören Vilks

Markus Granqvist’s sets and Lena Lindgren’s costumes are surreal caricatures, the stuff of nightmares. In the opening happy days at Thunder-ten-Tronck, Candide and his family are bloated blobs; the warring Westphalian and Bulgarian soldiers are white-faced, lance-bearing skeletons; the crowd around the auto-da-fé seethes menacingly. In Act 1,Tandberg’s direction brings out all the horror of the wars, earthquakes and the general cruelty of man to man, allowing only moments of light relief. This is potent theatre, winding up the anger in Voltaire’s satire to its maximum. 

In Act 2, things loosen up a bit and allow us some fun while getting even more surreal. The Kings’ Barcarolle is sung on the ocean floor with the kings as miscellaneous sea creatures; the interlude in Surinam is transmuted to St Barthélemy, Sweden’s one and only Caribbean colony (who knew?); an amusing passage of dialogue is fashioned from the fact that the coloniser was King Gustav III, the original founder of the Royal Swedish Opera, which was the site of his assassination in 1792 (the event known to Verdi fans as Un ballo in maschera).

Candide Act 2
© Royal Swedish Opera | Sören Vilks

Miriam Treichl does a superb job both as the Old Lady and as narrator and overall master of ceremonies (a duty often given to the baritone playing Pangloss). Treichl carries the show with swagger, whether she’s roaming the stage on a zimmer frame, taking potshots at other characters with her pistol or singing and dancing multilingual tango in “I Am Easily Assimilated”.

So far, so good, but the show founders on the twin rocks of diction and orchestral balance. For a majority of the opera, you simply can’t make out the words being sung, so the jokes fall flat unless you either remember them verbatim from previous listenings or read Swedish and are content to get them from the surtitles only. All the singers suffered from this some of the time, some suffered from it all of the time.

At least part of the diction problem was because the cast had to work far too hard to make themselves heard above the orchestra. It’s fine – and, indeed, a lot of fun – for conductor Stefan Klingele to give his players their heads for a loud, brassy overture, but Klingele seemed to make no effort to rein them in to give his singers a chance. The orchestral playing wasn’t bad: the lyrical, more operatic passages were lush and lovely even if there were various timing lapses in the more Broadway-like and polyrhythmic parts of the score. It’s just that they were way, way too loud for their singers. Several of the cast were miked for spoken dialogue – with the orchestra at this level, they should have been miked for the musical numbers also.

Elin Rombo (Cunegonde)
© Royal Swedish Opera | Sören Vilks

Within these constraints, there were some good acting and singing performances. Elin Rombo was an attractively voiced Cunegonde, navigating the musical and emotional ups and downs of “Glitter and Be Gay” with confidence. Joel Annmo gave plenty of pathos in the title role. Jeremy Carpenter struggled with the top notes in Pangloss’ “Dear Boy”, but was superb as Martin, telling the tale of the sugar-cane field amputee. Niklas Björling Rygert was amiably devious in his various roles as Vanderdendur and others. The closing “Make Our Garden Grow” was suitably uplifting.

Tandberg’s Candide is a relatively new production (it premiered in January 2020) and it’s an edgy and genuinely interesting take on Bernstein’s work. If you have the stomach for the hard-hitting surrealism, it provides some rich entertainment. But to become a winner, the intelligibility and orchestral balance need to be a lot better than they were last night.