Though filled with intoxicating melodies and its own unique charm, Leonard Bernstein’s Candide undeniably has its problems. A hodgepodge of operatic and musical theatre styles, a reliance on an overly wordy narration by the actor playing Voltaire and a plot dependent on a rather heavy satire of optimism are among its challenges. Director (and General Director of New Zealand Opera) Stuart Maunder’s solution for this problematic work is to treat it as simple pantomime with everything not only played for laughs, but for cheap laughs. The result was every scene being enlivened by self-regardingly quirky dance numbers, characters speaking in extreme, over-the-top accents and overall wearying campness. While intermittently fun, this production relied too heavily on these tricks and was ultimately unsatisfying as a stage presentation of Bernstein’s work. Indiscriminate amplification of all cast members was also disappointing and seemingly meaningless when applied to the majority operatic cast.

Robert Tucker (supporting roles) and Amelia Berry (Cunegonde) © Simon Watt
Robert Tucker (supporting roles) and Amelia Berry (Cunegonde)
© Simon Watt

It has to be admitted that if one could accept this approach to the work, it was mostly exceptionally well put across, every participant having a confident stage manner and able to deal well with the panoply of different movements, dance styles and dramatic situations required. Byron Coll’s appearances of a multitude of characters (including a broad Southern Baptist version of a Spanish Inquisitor) were highlights. But when every moment is treated as an opportunity for unrelieved pantomime comedy, taking nothing seriously, any instances of pathos or other deeper feeling cannot be effective. This was the case here, particularly damagingly for the final apotheosis in “Make our garden grow”, where the characters realise that the truth lies somewhere between cynicism and relentless optimism. This was also the moment where the amplification went most awry, overloading on the climaxes and creating a strange balance of voices. The insistence on making every scene into a broad farce became tiring by the second Act and I can’t help but feel that, problematic as it may be, Bernstein’s satire on optimism, religion and political oppression is smarter than what was presented here.

Byron Coll (supporting roles) and James Benjamin Rodgers (Candide) and chorus members © Simon Watt
Byron Coll (supporting roles) and James Benjamin Rodgers (Candide) and chorus members
© Simon Watt

It’s even more of a shame because most of the singing was of very high quality. James Benjamin Rodgers brought a light and heady tenor to the title role. His career has featured both musical theatre and operatic roles and his assumption of Candide suggested that vocally he is perhaps more suited to the former. His plaintive tone and wide-eyed stage presence suited the idealistic Candide of the first Act particularly well. The amplification meant there was no mismatch in vocal heft with the rather more ample-sounding soprano of Amelia Berry in the role of Cunegonde. The oft-excerpted coloratura aria “Glitter and be gay” was a true tour de force in her hands, coping even when called upon to produce the most difficult roulades as she was being dressed by several chorus members. The notes in alt were fabulously secure at both loud and soft dynamic levels. Like her Candide, she was fully involved in the stage business, presenting a credible if ultimately unsympathetic character. The Old Lady was played with great vocal character by Jacqueline Dark and Natasha Wilson was a charming Paquette. Actor Reg Livermore tried his best to keep the narration interesting, but his portrayals of Dr Pangloss and Martin were undermined by the assumption of accents or unclear speaking styles that were not only tiring but also obscured plot points at key moments.

Reg Livermore (Dr Pangloss) © Simon Watt
Reg Livermore (Dr Pangloss)
© Simon Watt

The orchestra’s contribution was often dazzling. Musical Director Wyn Davies, who has previously shown stylistic aptitude to composers as diverse as Janáček and Rossini in Auckland, proved to be equally comfortable with the wacky array of musical styles Bernstein piled into this work. From the opening notes of the jaunty overture, Davies sculpted a memorable account of the score and it felt almost as if each new location in the story was heralded by different musical colours. It was just a pity that the masterful music-making was let down by the incessantly farcical stage business and misjudged amplification.

Byron Coll, Kanen Breen (Governor), Jacqueline Dark (Old Lady) and Robert Tucker © Simon Watt
Byron Coll, Kanen Breen (Governor), Jacqueline Dark (Old Lady) and Robert Tucker
© Simon Watt
**111