Iford Arts open their final summer at Iford Manor with the crazy, bitterly comic operetta Candide: a fitting chance to pay tribute to Leonard Bernstein in his centenary year, and an ideal challenge for the signature high-octane brilliance of director Jeff Clarke. His whirling, high-energy collaboration between Iford Arts and Opera Della Luna packs every possible punch in a furiously creative evening of constant costume changes, an endlessly reassembling set, and above all a blazing sense of commitment from his fine cast, boasting some exciting new talent alongside seasoned professionals.

Candide is a violent protest against ‘perfect’ philosophical solutions to the insoluble problem of human life: it doesn’t shy away from shock, with rape, murder and moral devastation looming large in the back story (and plot arc) of almost every character. Candide’s endless, troubled travels feel like a parable of life itself, as he learns the farcical nature of optimism, clawing his way through sudden deaths and accidental killings, heading desperately and inexorably for disillusionment. The violence throughout is histrionic, yet hideously plausible: such cycles of human trafficking and murder continue in our own war-torn world. Candide takes us through a surreally exaggerated, callous journey of exploitation, in which the hypocrisy and cruelty of our world is sarcastically, angrily portrayed; but Bernstein closes Candide on a calmer note, as his surviving characters ultimately reject wealth and power to settle into simple kibbutz life hoping for happiness in the rural idyll. “Neither pure nor wise nor good, we’ll do the best we know… and make the garden grow,” our characters finally resolve, as relieved as we are to embrace the exhortation of six dead, deposed kings who encircle Candide in gondolas to dispense the true wisdom of experience. As to precisely how Clarke gets six gondolas to float simultaneously in Iford’s tiny cloister – just wait and see. It’s a feast of ingenuity and fun; often darkly disturbing, sometimes frankly shocking. The pace never falters.  

Bernstein and his collaborator, playwright Lillian Hellman, took Voltaire’s satirical novel as the ideal instrument to ridicule complacent 1950s America, in which Joseph McCarthy had wreaked havoc with his persecution of supposed Communists: Hellman herself had been blacklisted after her appearance before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. We’re not in America here, but travelling the globe with our hero Candide on a set which dynamically evolves into Westphalia, Venice, Paraguay, Eldorado and beyond: Jeff Clarke and Elroy Ashmore’s clever design uses Iford’s central well as a fulcrum into which different pieces of set can be slotted, producing a castle, a ship, a scaffold, and even Montevideo (complete with Georgian facades and feather-duster palm trees) in seconds, with scenery managed by the cast themselves, who often change costume on stage. The vehemence of the libretto means that original vituperative rejection of McCarthyism never quite dies away: we may not be in America, but America (and its tendency towards self-deluded moral evangelism) is in the very bones of this piece. Voltaire is embodied across the cast as narrator, signified by thick, black-rimmed glasses donned by different characters in turn.

Oliver Gooch, conducting the Orpheus Sinfonia, gets a suitably swaggering, glitzy and outrageous sound for Bernstein’s score, which is just as in your face as the story itself, with a swooning, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer romanticism on the side. Gooch finds some refreshingly cool lyricism for the key reflective arias from Cunegonde (the harrowing Glitter and be Gay) and Candide (It must be so and Nothing more than this). Singing is excellent across the company, with unaccompanied choral moments heartstoppingly vivid.

David Horton’s warm and inviting tenor, full of agile lyricism, gives us a naturally appealing Candide infused with the gentle magnetism of natural leadership. Horton skilfully develops his Candide from boyish directness to existential agony before leading his dependents into the mountains to live, in Horton’s own words, “pragmatically ever after”. Paula Sides is exceptional as his Cunegonde, her incisive, brilliant soprano fearlessly revealing a fragile, frivolous princess who is plunged into horror of war, discovering a ruthless determination to live (but risking her soul) on the way. Rosemary Ashe is gloriously charismatic as the Old Woman, so “easily assimilated” into new countries, in a performance combining resolute musicality with a commanding comic presence. John Griffiths, taking a handful of mainly royal roles, excels above all as Martin, the prizewinning pessimist. Paul Featherstone gives us several baddies, including a resplendently selfish Grand Inquisitor. Carl Sanderson’s enervating Pangloss never fails to see the bright side, with innate comic talent. Claire Watkins’ lustrous soprano makes the most of naughty Paquette, while Chris Jenkins is fabulously camp as Maximilian. Elia Lo Tauro is an endearing and soft-toned Cacambo, owing much to Passepartout, and supporting roles are all strong, including eye-catchingly expressive baritone Matthew Siveter. A rollercoaster of an evening to kick off Iford’s last summer.