Bernstein’s Candide is perhaps one of the most significant operettas of the 20th century. Not just because it’s one of the few examples of an American operetta, but also because it was written at a time when musical theatre had already achieved dominance. However, the music is in many ways more akin to a musical than to the operas of the time or the European operetta tradition. But rather than sitting awkwardly between two camps, being neither one nor the other, Candide is both operetta and musical, offering the musical and vocal sophistication of opera with the accessibility of a musical. Based on the novella of the same name by Voltaire, Candide tells the story of the eponymous young hero, whose naïve optimism is hammered out of him by a series of bizarre and unfortunate events.

Candide © Clärchen and Matthias Baus
Candide
© Clärchen and Matthias Baus
Performing the 1993 concert version of Bernstein’s score, the Staatsoper Berlin really brought this fantastical story to life. The set is colourful and ridiculous, perfectly complementing both the music and the plot. There’s a floating bathtub, a bishop lit up like a Christmas tree and a bunch of kids being taught by what looks like a clown, all overseen from above by the bizarrely dressed chorus. The sense of fun and absurdity which underlies the whole of the production makes it a delight to watch. The narrator (with a strong but understandable German accent) along with brief projected plot cues (in German) guides the audience perfectly through the action. At times the written word got in the way – it’s difficult to read a paragraph while trying to enjoy the overture – but mostly they were witty and illuminating.

Leonardo Capalbo as Candide and Elin Rombo as Cunegonde © Clärchen and Matthias Baus
Leonardo Capalbo as Candide and Elin Rombo as Cunegonde
© Clärchen and Matthias Baus
Clambering over doorframes, popping out of bathtubs and springing out of boxes was the excellent cast. In the title role was the fantastic American tenor Leonardo Capalbo. He is the full package, attractive with a great voice and good acting skills. His rich rounded voice is a joy to listen to, but most notable is his perfect breath control, allowing him to spin phrases in ways most other singers simply can’t. His love interest Cunegonde was sung by the wonderful Elin Rombo, whose rendition of “Glitter and be Gay” contained some of the most light and playful coloratura I’ve heard.

The character roles were as impressive as the principals. Graham F. Valentine was a hilarious Pangloss, half spoken, half sung with an inimitably comic nasal voice.

Anja Silja  as the Old Lady in Candide © Clärchen and Matthias Baus
Anja Silja as the Old Lady in Candide
© Clärchen and Matthias Baus
Anja Silja was vocally a little weak as the Old Lady, unsurprising when we consider that she is a well-known soprano singing a contralto role, and her English was heavily accented and occasionally difficult to understand. However, she still convinced dramatically, her odd accent even adding to her character, particularly in her aria “I am easily assimilated”.

The Staatskapelle Berlin were led by the British conductor Wayne Marshall and played with all the rhythmic vitality one needs in this work and more. It’s not always easy to strike the balance between jazz, classical and musical in the works of Bernstein, but the Marshall and the Staatskapelle navigated their way through Bernstein’s stylistic eclecticism with aplomb. One thing I did find somewhat disappointing was the chorus, whose English was nigh on unintelligible with somewhat scrappy ensemble. This is music which lives from its rhythms and here the chorus left something to be desired.

Candide © Clärchen and Matthias Baus
Candide
© Clärchen and Matthias Baus
This is one of the most enjoyable trips to an opera house I’ve had in a long time, with wonderful individual and ensemble performances, great singing actors and a laugh out loud production, which perfectly matches the ludicrous plot. It’s a joy from beginning to end, a must for opera lovers and opera haters alike.

****1