Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
September 29, 2018

It was American playwright Lillian Hellman who suggested the idea of Candide to Leonard Bernstein in 1953. Concerned at the Inquisition-like hearings by the House of Un-American Activities Committee, chaired by Joseph McCarthy, she proposed they adapt Voltaire’s 1759 novella, which satirised the 18th century philosophy of Optimism, that professed all was as it should be under a benevolent God who had created “the best of all possible worlds”. At the time Voltaire wrote it, the Spanish Inquisition was burning heretics, then came the Great Lisbon earthquake which killed thousands.

Phillip Scott, Alexander Lewis and cast members of Candide. Photograph © Grant Leslie Photography

When Phillip Scott, who played the narrator in the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs’ delightful concert version of Candide, introduced the show and its history, there was applause from the audience at a reference to current “political self-interest”. The somewhat convoluted, peripatetic plot of Candide may lack a strong dramatic structure but the show still has much to say to audiences today, and there is plenty of musical brilliance in the score.

Candide premiered in 1956 with a book by Hellman but flopped. Since 1974, it has generally been performed with a book by Hugh Wheeler commissioned by Hal Prince for a new, one-act Broadway season, with lyrics by Richard Wilbur (among several others). Later came a two-act version for opera companies. There are now a number of versions, including John Mauceri’s famous orchestration for Scottish Opera in 1988, which Bernstein then re-worked slightly and conducted for a concert version at the Barbican in London in 1989.

The Sydney Philharmonia Choirs’ concert performance, directed by Mitchell Butel, draws on several versions, including Mauceri’s orchestrations, Wheeler’s book and the narration created by Bernstein and John Wells for the 1989 London concert.

Alexander Lewis, Caroline O’Connor and Annie Aitken. Photograph © Grant Leslie Photography

The operetta begins in Westphalia at the castle of Thunder-ten-Tronck. The naïve, young Candide – the illegitimate son of the Baron’s sister – becomes betrothed to the Baron’s lovely daughter Cunégonde. During an idyllic upbringing, they have been taught by their teacher Dr Pangloss that everything happens for the best in this “best of all possible worlds”. But the Baron and his son Maximilian refuse to allow Candide to marry Cunégonde and send him packing.

On the picaresque romp that follows, which takes Candide to places including Lisbon, Cadiz, Paris and El Dorado in Paraguay on a series of improbable adventures, the characters encounter war, brutality, hangings, prostitution, rape, disease and slavery, and quickly discover that the world is full of suffering and injustice. When a wiser, more realistic Candide finally meets up with Cunégonde again at the end, they decide that they must look at the world differently and decide to “cultivate [their] own garden.”

Butel has the cast perform for the most part at the front of the stage, with the orchestra and the 300-strong choir, conducted by Brett Weymark, behind them. The staging is simple with a few white cubes, but production designer Brendan de la Hay injects plenty of colour with his vivid costumes. Butel draws equally vibrant performances from the cast, and keeps the action moving fluently, helped by Amy Campbell’s witty choreography.

Annie Aitken. Photograph © Grant Leslie Photography

Musically the piece takes off immediately with the exuberant overture, then embraces a range of styles including operatic arias and choruses, as well as references to Gilbert and Sullivan, tango and Broadway. Weymark is fascinating to watch as he swoops and swirls with the music, leading the orchestra (which includes Sydney Youth Orchestra members) in a fabulous, buoyant reading.

Butel and Weymark have assembled a cracker cast. Alexander Lewis is winning as the naïve, wide-eyed Candide, capturing his cheerful klutziness and subtly conveying his gradual maturity. He sings with a warm, honey tenor, and his rendition of Nothing More Than This near the end of the show is very touching.

Annie Aitken is sensational as Cunégonde, bringing the house down with the famous aria Glitter and Be Gay, in which she leaps brilliantly between depression and mad exuberance. Vocally she combines a sparkling coloratura soprano with the chops of a musical theatre performer. (Her credits include Melba in which she co-starred with Emma Matthews and Muriel’s Wedding). She also has an effervescent personality that radiates into the auditorium. She’s a fine comic actor to boot and is definitely one to watch.

Kanen Breen. Photograph © Grant Leslie Photography

Caroline O’Connor is also very funny, bringing just the right sardonic touch to The Old Lady with one buttock. Phillip Scott moves effortlessly between the narrator and the comical, misguided Dr Pangloss, while Kanen Breen deploys his renowned comic chops and agile tenor as the camp Maximillian. There is also strong support from Katherine Allen as the maid Paquette, Nicholas Jones and Adam Player, along with Andrew Dickson, Elora Ledger and Rebecca MacCallion from Pacific Opera.

The chorus sings beautifully, and gets into the spirit of things dramatically sporting sunglasses, making the sound of a volcano, doing a Mexican Wave, and generally bopping around where required. There is also a fantastic moment when they all remove their black tops to display a riot of colourful shirts. At the end when they sing Universal Good, and join Candide in Cunégonde in Make Our Garden Grow, the sound is heavenly.

Candide is a strange show, mixing musical genres as it does and combining them with a rambling, unlikely narrative. But this Sydney Philharmonia concert was still a real delight.

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