“Admittedly, Candide has never been my favorite item in the Lenny catalogue: its pert tunes, sassy dissonances, and off-kilter rhythms come from a bag of tricks that Bernstein used too often. Also, its ethnic stereotyping and its rape jokes give pause”.

Annie Aitken (Cunegonde) © Grant Leslie
Annie Aitken (Cunegonde)
© Grant Leslie

Having stumbled upon Alex Ross' thoughts in The New Yorker ahead of attending the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs' concert version of Leonard Bernstein's 1956 musical/operetta, I was totally delighted by director Mitchell Butel's decision to ignore both the #MeToo movement and the concurrent US Senate hearings into the suitability of Judge Brett Kavanaugh, and go, if anything, with expat Aussie Germaine Greer's view of rape as something a woman should "get over". Surely Annie Aitken's glittering Cunegonde would agree, as would Caroline O'Connor's amazingly agile Old Woman – or as she demanded of Phil Scott's po-faced Pangloss' narration, “a veteran, but still pretty hot”. For both subscribed enthusiastically to the big white lie that “repeated ravishment doesn't change the heart”.

So, political correctness put aside, did we lose out in getting only a concert version of Candide? Did we miss exotic settings of Westphalia, Bulgaria, Lisbon, Paraguay, Eldorado, Surinam, Paris, Venice, etc and several sinking ships? Not one whit, for the artfully lit Concert Hall stage kept us in just one place as the plot flew all over an 18th-century world which, in an updated version of John Wells' 1980s narration, seemed remarkably like our own Australian ethos. And in what was claimed to be the world's largest chorus assembled in this best of all possible opera houses (400+), we had a musical force that never failed to add to the theatrical aspects.

Alexander Lewis (Candide) and Caroline O'Connor (Old Lady) © Grant Leslie
Alexander Lewis (Candide) and Caroline O'Connor (Old Lady)
© Grant Leslie

For instance, in a stunning coup de théâtre, the ironic jollity of Voltaire's auto-da-fé was immeasurably augmented when 400 black tops were discarded for a colour-coded selection of loud Hawaiian shirts! Back in black, 400 prayerful Jesuits in a Brazilian jungle and 400 gloomy Russians intoning "Money, Money Money" provided all the transportation required by the text.

Actually, I'm only assuming they were Russians from Bernstein's Orthodox borrowings in that song. Elsewhere, G&S cried out from "Life is Happiness Indeed", Strauss (Johann) from The Paris Waltz, and Strauss (Richard) surely added Alpine altitude to the unscaleable mountains of Eldorado.

The Philharmonia's Artistic and Music Director, Brett Weymark certainly had our journey under total musical control despite conducting the blended forces of the Sydney Youth Orchestra with professional augmentation. Candide's Lament after he's survived a whipping at the auto-da-fé, for instance, gained much from the SYO's principal oboe's sensitive accompaniment.

Kanen Breen (Maximilian) © Grant Leslie
Kanen Breen (Maximilian)
© Grant Leslie

And in that role, Alexander Lewis managed the growth from over-optimistic innocence to a maturity that allowed him to question his Cunegonde's heart after multiple, not-always enforced infidelities with a mellow tenor that should give operatic quality to his Tony in West Side Story for Opera Australia on Sydney Harbour next year. Annie Aitken's Cunegonde was pure Queen of the Night in a hyperactive "Glitter and be Gay" that predicts a coloratura future in opera as well as starring roles in musicals.

Supporting the central quartet – fortunate to have attracted an international figure like O'Connor back for just two performances – Kanen Breen's constantly and camply reincarnated Maximilian and Adam Player's multiple roles filled out their characters' brief appearances delightfully.

Phillip Scott (Pangloss) © Grant Leslie
Phillip Scott (Pangloss)
© Grant Leslie

Arguably, Bernstein and his numberless collaborators on script and orchestration lose their way as the second half changes pace. The Venice scene, the come-down from high ironical optimism to the reality that “It is only work that makes life endurable”, and the final, almost dumbfounding conclusion that the 'happy couple' will put all their picaresque adventures behind them to make their garden grow, while Cunegonde will become a baker of bread, both begs belief and lacks the musical support to carry us from the concert hall with real optimism.

But so much contagious music earlier – why is it so little known, apart from the scintillating overture? The fact is the libretti are so specific to Candide, they make little sense out of context; especially today.

*****