Leonard Bernstein’s effervescent and irreverent operetta Candide certainly makes for a fun, firecracker start to Victorian Opera’s 2024 season. And Stuart Maunder’s first contribution as newly settled artistic director certainly makes the serious business of running an opera company seem a most enjoyable task. Thursday’s opening night at St Kilda’s packed Palais Theatre was a hoot!
Based on Voltaire’s 1759 novella – regarded as a satirical mocking of German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz’s postulations that the actual world is the best of all possible worlds because, well, God dictates it that way – Candide is a rollercoaster ride across a preposterous but illuminating chain of events.
Its impossible not to root for its hapless titular hero, facing a world of dangerous exploits while in search of his sweetheart Cunégonde, who he discovers after her having endured a woeful existence as the victim of rape and prostitution.
Illegitimately born and raised in his uncle’s castle in Westphalia but exiled for having the audacity to want to marry his daughter, Candide’s adventures include entanglements with the Bulgarian army, being shipwrecked off Portugal, deemed a heretic by the Spanish Inquisition, a spate with the Jesuits and a river journey to the golden riches of El Dorado.
After what was considered a disastrous opening on Broadway in 1956, Candide underwent extensive reworking over the next couple of decades, leading to the 1982 two-act “opera house version” and a long list of contributors including lyrics by original and revised book writers Lillian Hellman and Hugh Wheeler, as well as Stephen Sondheim, Richard Wilbur and Bernstein himself.
Candide‘s history is as crammed and chequered as Its hero’s life. And what it lacks in dramatic thrust, it makes up for with a smorgasbord of irresistible charms, lashings of wittiness and music that tickles the senses.
Director Dean Bryant’s stroke of conceptual simplicity and staging effectiveness create a triumphant experience in which Candide not only packs in the vitality of life but shines a light on the compromises that might be necessary in effecting how to live it.
Nothing remains static and neither does Bryant’s feverish offering – interpreted as a quirky, travelling pantomime show of sorts, unfolding from an old, worn 1970s caravan and narrated by a rumpled scholarly gentleman who calls himself Voltaire and doubles as the optimistic philosopher Dr Pangloss.
When the custom-made Voltaire-related proscenium drapery lifts, Orchestra Victoria are seen at the rear of a bare stage. At first, it almost feels disappointing but for the glorious, carefree and perky overture emanating from conductor Benjamin Northey’s brisk and sparkling reading – one which emanated all the way to the tale’s bucolic ending.
It’s really a semi-staged affair but designer Dann Barber’s ingenious caravan prop and deliciously exaggerated 18th century costumes belittled by garbage and grime, together with the assistance of Matt Scott’s complimentary lighting, provide so much focus and dazzling detail that nothing more is needed.
Filling it, the show is elevated by a brilliantly animated cast, several making noteworthy company and role debuts. And it’s refreshing to hear Aussie accents star … among a few others imitating foreign ones.
Tenor Lyndon Watts – a leading artist in the recent Australian premiere production of Hamilton – brings boyish innocence and boundless energy to Candide. Bernstein deliberately slows down time for a chance to look into Candide’s heart and Watts obliges with arias characterised by great warmth and expressivity.
Alongside Katherine Allen’s magnetic, flouncy and flakey Cunégonde, Watts’ light tenor is put to the test against a revelatory vivacious and nimble young soprano that will undoubtedly be going many more places. Allen makes every note, every move and every expression an eloquently performed package.
Glitter and Be Gay, Cunégonde’s contemplations on her survival as a working girl in Paris with champagne bottle in hand, gets the show-stopping treatment it deserves and a knockout coloratura with it.
Multi-talented entertainment industry artist Eddie Perfect is untiringly commanding as Voltaire and, when stepping out from his comical papier-mâché long coat, the eccentric Dr Pangloss.
Voltaire does a lot of talking and Perfect has no trouble moving the zany narrative along swiftly. There’s a little rough-and-readiness in delivery but for a show that mixes stage, music theatre and operatic artists, it more or less adds to its wild eclectic atmosphere.
Euan Fistrovic Doidge is no shrinking violet under the spotlight, engraving excellence on his depiction of Cunégonde’s excitable camp brother, Maximilian. Melanie Bird is a squeaky delight as Maximilian’s girlfriend, Paquette, and impactful local bass Eddie Muliaumaseali’i appears in his element as Candide’s kind and supportive companion, Cacambo.
Despite a couple of throatal issues on opening night, Maria Mercedes takes charge of the Old Lady with age-defying verve and the panache and comic timing in both Alexander Lewis’ Governor / Vanderdenur and Troy Sussman’s Martin make them priceless show gems.
An accomplished chorus of 16 mainly sing from behind the orchestra and you wonder why they aren’t utilised more after proving what a zippy ensemble they are when part of the main action – the blend of choreography by Freya List and directorship deserve credit.
The show’s running time is only around two hours but Candide can have the feeling of being a tad-too-lengthy divertissement. Nevertheless, it’s also a dastardly fun romp. With just a three-performance season, it’s a shame that Bryant’s Candide will disappear so quickly. Perhaps we’ll see the old caravan pantomime travelling again soon.
Palais Theatre, Lower Esplanade, St Kilda
Performance: Thursday 8 February 2024
Season: 8 – 10 February 2024
Images: Lyndon Watts (centre) and the Cast of Candide – photo by Charlie Kinross | The Cast of Candide – photo by Charlie Kinross | Katherine Allen as Cunégonde in Candide – photo by Charlie Kinross
Review: Paul Selar