The message of Voltaire’s novel Candide, ou l’Optimisme is that rationality and reason, rather than custom, faith or authoritative orders should determine all human activity, and although this quintessence of the Age of Enlightenment sounds self-evident nowadays, a visit to the newspaper kiosk shows us otherwise: a lot of luridly-titled guidebooks and magazines try to talk us into believing that all sickness is psychological, that you are what you eat, and that success and happiness depend on the position and colour of your sofa. But while some guidance is welcome and indeed needed in a world that is much more complex than when Candide first appeared around 250 years ago, it does good to occasionally take a step back and evaluate your own beliefs.

Jennifer O'Loughlin and Kim Criswell © Barbara Palffy / Volksoper
Jennifer O'Loughlin and Kim Criswell
© Barbara Palffy / Volksoper

The Volksoper provided such a thought-provoking impulse with a wonderful rendition of Leonard Bernstein’s comic operetta of the same name, musically in the 1993 concert version, dramaturgically with satiric texts by Loriot that saw their first outing in Munich in 1999. In Bernstein’s popular songs, Voltaire speaks through the words of Richard Wilbur, Stephen Sondheim and Dorothy Parker, among others, and to great effect. Candide’s teacher Pangloss has taught him that in this best of all worlds, everything is automatically for the best, but a fantastic world tour through all kinds of disasters like shipwreck, earthquake, war and cannibalism ultimately proves that the contrary is more often the case. This insight is rewarded with a Biedermeier style happy ending as he settles down with his fiancée Cunegonde on a Venetian island. And while the story of this comic strip produces many genuine laughs because of its utter absurdity, they sometimes get stuck in your throat (“Auto-da-fé”) or turn into knowing smiles, as when “Oh happy we” harks back to the promise of first love and its easy dismissal of glaring personal differences.

Musically, things were in the competent hands of Joseph R. Olefirowicz, who has become popular on the internet as the “dancing conductor”. This describes his style very well although the best part of it, the delicious facial expressions and little gestures, were largely hidden from the audience. And while the Volksoper is generally lucky with their conductors (which cannot always be said of the singers), the orchestra was taken to yet another level by his entertaining and obviously motivating performance. This, however, was not always the case with the chorus (rehearsed by Thomas Böttcher). While sporting some impressive bass voices and fine singing in the complicated parts, simpler pieces like the “Westphalia chorale” sounded a bit more rustic than probably intended.

Happily, all the soloists convinced with idiomatic English, verve and expressive acting. Stephen Chaundy isn’t only capable of keeping up a naive face for an entire evening, but also possesses the typical white sound of the British tenor school that goes well with the title role. His was a very enjoyable performance with only minor flaws like the top register of the voice not always being seamlessly connected to the rest. Jennifer O’Loughlin’s lush voice and looks make her a very attractive Cunegonde, so one can forgive her the hardly audible bottom notes of the short descending runs in “Glitter and be gay”. Other than that she tossed off this coloratura showpiece with ease and the obligatory fluttering eyelashes. Kim Criswell was a hilarious Old Lady whose tango scene was effectively set by stage director Christoph Wagner-Trenkwitz. The most prominent name in the cast disappointed however: Morten Frank Larsen as Pangloss demonstrated that he is a gifted actor, but sounded very thin-voiced. It wasn’t until shortly before the intermission that he mustered some volume – ironically, before getting hanged. With the exception of the short “Universal good”, the ensemble pieces went very well and individual performances in the many supporting parts ranged from solid to excellent. A surprise came with the house debut of American tenor Raymond Sepe whose lirico-spinto voice impressed.

Robert Meyer, the director of the house, contributed personally to the evening’s success by reading the texts that connect the songs as well as having them recited by Loriot himself. Loriot was the pen name of German humourist Vicco von Bülow and what he created for Candide will remain the last word on the work on German and Austrian stages for quite some time – German-speaking people do appreciate nobly understated humour and not just thigh-slapping jokes, as the pejorative stereotype would have it. I’d certainly like to see Loriot’s one-evening version of Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen one day.

****1