***** (5 stars)
As a spectacle, Candide is unsurpassed. As a triumph of multi-disciplinary co-operation, it’s incredible. As a crowd-pleasing theatrical spectacle, it’s outstanding. As a musical feast, it’s gargantuan. As a narrative, it’s simply indescribable. The evening was an extraordinarily enjoyable experience – but one that raised questions as well.
Leonard Bernstein’s operetta is based on the eponymous Voltaire play, which charts the progress of the hero through a surreal series of Unfortunate Events. Candide has been educated to believe that everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds: experience teaches him something completely different. His travels take him from Westphalia to Venice via Holland, Lisbon, Paris, Cadiz, Buenos Aires, the jungle, El Dorado, Suriname and the Adriatic. He loses and is reunited with his love, Cunegonde, her brother Maximilian, their tutor Doctor Pangloss, the servant girl Paquette, and an Old Woman who becomes Cunegonde’s companion. Everyone suffers one or more horrible fates: they are sent to war, die, are abused, murdered or executed, or are forced into prostitution. Some are inexplicably resurrected, only to suffer still more.
All these horrors are presented to us in an up-to-the minute hi-viz social media newsfeed fashion which serves to distance us from the horrors we are witnessing – make it all “fun fun fun”, or all part of “being famous” and we won’t notice how awful everything is, or question the appropriateness of making such dreadful situations funny, entertaining, or just plain normal.
These glossy, glitzy, glammed-up goings-on serve to sugar-coat the unbearable bitterness of the pills the protagonists are forced to swallow. Only by making it “fun” is it possible to bear the horrors we are watching – at various points I was uncomfortably reminded that what we were seeing on stage is going on today in many parts of our world.
The cast are uniformly brilliant. William Morgan’s Candide, Paula Sides’ Cunegonde, Lea Shaw’s Paquette and Susan Bullock’s Old Lady sang superbly while adapting themselves to whatever bizarre situation they found themselves in. Ronald Samm [Pangloss/ Martin/ Cacambo], Dan Shelvey [Maximilian/ Captain] and Jamie MacDougall [just about everybody else] threw themselves into their roles with gusto, unfazed by situation or costume [or lack of thereof].
The stars of the show, however, have to be the Chorus and Community Chorus who not only produced a rich and full choral sound when required but played an astonishingly varied number of parts with great gusto. Jesuits, influencers, kings, doctors, crooks, croupiers, inquisitors, camera operators, catwalk models: the list is endless, and I have to salute the production team responsible for getting everyone in the right costume at the right time and in the right place. Special mention must be given to the kids in the chorus, most especially in the El Dorado scene.
Throughout this riotous spectacle, Stuart Stratford and the wonderful Orchestra of Scottish Opera surrounded us with lush sound, irresistible rhythms and lively melodies. They are always enthusiastic supporters of and participators in whatever opera is being presented: I’m delighted that this time they could see what they part of. Another shout-out is necessary for the ‘relay conductors’ who ensured that even those singers who couldn’t see Stuart were kept firmly to his beat.
This is an extremely elaborate and complex production – huge credit to the large team of people who made it possible. I was very glad of the cameramen and the monitors which screened close-ups when the action was at the other end of the acting area – though I had to keep fighting the temptation to continue watching them rather than the singers/ actors when they were near me. I was grateful for the supertitles which helped me make sense of what was being sung – at times I would really have struggled to follow the words without them. I’m sure I was not alone in being very thankful for a seat: you needed to be reasonably fit to stand and follow the action, which swirled and flowed around the whole area.
It’s strange to remember that two years ago we were sitting, masked and decorous in our widely-spaced small enclaves watching Scottish Opera’s rambunctious Falstaff. At that time, we were so very happy to be at a live performance after so long in isolation: what a joy it was last night to be back in close proximity with other people, having a whale of a time together. Candide is yet another triumph for Scottish Opera, and the audience made their appreciation known in no uncertain terms.
At the end of the show, Candide and Cunegonde, sadder and wiser, tentatively reach out to each other. They know they are neither pure, nor wise, nor good, but they will do the best they know. Perhaps that’s all any of us can hope to do.
Candide, Scottish Opera, Scottish Opera Studios, Glasgow, Runs until Saturday 20th August, For Tickets go to: Candide | Scottish Opera