Bernstein’s Candide is a work of contradictions. It’s labelled an operetta and contains much farce and silliness, yet its intent is deadly serious. It’s based on a Voltaire novella which is a contender for the title of “most sarcastic book ever written”, yet it is suffused with warmth and tenderness. And, at least originally, it’s a Broadway show – but a show whose core musical values are decidedly operatic. But maybe, just like Voltaire’s analysis of the human condition, we shouldn’t attempt to resolve the contradictions: maybe we should just celebrate all those elements and make the joyful most of every one of them. That’s the way Barrie Kosky plays it in Komische Oper Berlin’s new production, and the results are triumphant.

Allan Clayton (Candide) © Monika Rittershaus
Allan Clayton (Candide)
© Monika Rittershaus

Kosky is well known for coming up with off-the-wall but weirdly appropriate twists on his subject material. But there’s not much you can dream up that’s more off-the-wall than Voltaire: Kosky has met his master, and all he needs to do is to run with it. A flock of jewel-laden red sheep? Tick. The horrific tortures of an auto-da-fé turned into a fun-for-all-the-family carnival? Tick. The oh-so-proper Enlightenment philosophy teacher caught in flagrante and explaining it away as a physics lesson? You got it – they’re all there in the 1756 original, and Komische Oper render them all with gusto. Candide has been through many iterations and transformations since its decidedly flawed 1956 Broadway première: what surprises about this one is the amount of authentic Voltaire dialogue that is retained between numbers, and how seamlessly it fits with their clever Sondheim-era lyrics (of which Sondheim himself contributed some).

Allan Clayton plays the ingénu of the title role with an open heart and a warm bath of a voice, a voice to envelop you in its gentle folds. His big solo numbers, “Candide’s Lament” and “It must be so” (reprised as “It must be me”), bring tears to the eye and a flood of sympathy – the more so because in between, Clayton has been doing the daftest of music-hall song-and-dance stuff before the mood turns ugly. And the mood gets very ugly indeed: the wholesale rape, pillage and destruction of the Seven Years War is rendered in a minute of Bernstein orchestral mayhem, a lot of stage smoke and a bizarre mixture of 18th-century and present-day military costumes. The Lisbon earthquake gets similar orchestral treatment, and the ensuing auto-da-fé scene, with its baying crowds and ostrich-feathered carnival queens prancing around the hapless victims, is truly disturbing. By the way, Voltaire wasn’t making this up: the Portuguese Inquisition really did conduct an auto-da-fé in the hope of preventing further earthquakes (presumably without ostrich feathers). Here, Kosky permits himself his one moment of contemporary political comment: in the parade of slaughtered victims brought before the Inquisitor, “Jews” are followed by “Refugees, your eminence”.

<i>I am easily assimilated</i>: Anne Sofie von Otter (Old Lady) © Monika Rittershaus
I am easily assimilated: Anne Sofie von Otter (Old Lady)
© Monika Rittershaus

The mood doesn’t get any uglier than when the Old Lady tells her life story (of repeated rape and sale into sexual slavery). We all know Anne Sofie von Otter as a singer, but here, she showed herself as a consummate actress, holding the audience breathless with the extended monologue before switching the mood brilliantly into a bizarre, multilingual mariachi version of the tango “I am easily assimilated”. Nicole Chevalier gave us a credible Cunegonde, but in “Glitter and be Gay” she has a different mood switch to negotiate, between wistfulness and good time girl frivolity. The staging, a confection of pole-dancing and Weimar-era cabaret, was certainly striking but may have made it just too difficult for Chevalier to sing the aria at its most showstopping. In the dual role of Voltaire and the perpetually optimistic Dr Pangloss, Franz Hawlata compèred proceedings with suave urbanity.

Allan Clayton (Candide) © Monika Rittershaus
Allan Clayton (Candide)
© Monika Rittershaus

Candide is a series of individual adventures: all were staged differently, with attractive costumes and good humour, and there’s no point in attempting a description of each (the show, apparently, included no less than 900 costumes). What’s important is this: the string of minor characters were all sung and played to a high standard, the standard of the chorus was very high, the excitement and execution of the choreography would have done justice to the best of West End or Broadway musicals.

Allan Clayton (Candide) © Monika Rittershaus
Allan Clayton (Candide)
© Monika Rittershaus

Perhaps most importantly though, since this performance was a centenary celebration of Leonard Bernstein, Jordan de Souza and Komische Oper Orchestra knocked it out of the park. There was verve, there was clarity, there was beauty of sound, there was good balance with the singers and the truly operatic qualities of the score shone through. Bernstein struggled greatly with this work (“it’s hard to be eclectic”, he wrote in his letters). He would surely feel that this production fully expresses what he wanted Candide  to be.

*****