Bernstein – Candide

Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, Thursday December 28, 2006

Conductor: John Axelrod. Production, lighting: Robert Carsen. Costumes: Buki Shiff. Voltaire, Pangloss, Martin: Lambert Wilson. Candide: William Burden. Cunegonde: Anna Christy. Old Lady: Kim Criswell. Grand Inquisitor, Captain, Governor, Vanderdendur, Ragotski: John Daszak. Paquette: Jeni Bern. Maximilien: David Adam Moore. Cacambo: Ferlyn Brass. Ensemble Orchestral de Paris. Chorus of the Théâtre du Châtelet.

It must be hard to know what to with Candide. Though it’s supposed to be a “comic operetta” it isn’t really clear what sort of voices it requires: operatic or Broadway. The extreme wordiness of the libretto (or should I say lyrics?) is in inverse proportion to the dramatic coherence and drive of the plot. And the piece has had such a chequered history it now seems unclear which version might be called “right”.

To give some semblance of coherence to the whole, Robert Carsen’s characteristically box-fresh, bright-as-a-button production, with natty costumes and neat lighting, is set literally in a 50s TV. The proscenium is hidden behind the façade of a giant period set, complete with knobs, and the curved rectangle of the screen is repeated in ribs receding towards the rear of the stage like the inside of a whale.

We thus have basically a single set binding the work together, into which large curtains are dropped, paste-board ships sail and 50s cars drive; and the constant zapping around of the plot is likened to zapping from channel to channel. During the overture, the TV screen first displays titles in “zany” graphics (Volt-Air TV presents…) reminiscent of Bewitched or some other old series, then grainy colour images of the American TV dream: women opening refrigerators or wielding electric mixers, men polishing Chevrolets, happy white families and so on – very much as in the Tom Cairns production of Trouble in Tahiti on DVD. Indeed, some of the footage was identical.

The action is largely set in the 50s/60s: at the outset, the baron of “West-Failure”’s castle is the white house and the family is dressed recognisably as the Kennedys. There are references throughout the show to iconic images of the optimistic America of the period. The most successful idea of all, to my mind, was to choreograph Glitter and be gay as a repro of Diamonds are a girl’s best friend, with Cunegonde in Marilyn Monroe’s yellow hair and pink satin dress, complete with bow in the back, surrounded by dancers in tails and vast curtains bearing close-ups of the real Marilyn.

Visual references to Some Like It Hot (jazz players dressed as women) were less convincing, but Anna Christy and Kim Crisswell scored a hit as Vegas show-girls in spangled leotards and ostrich feathers for We are women.

The least successful scene, I thought, was the one that has become the most famous, in which five “world leaders”: Berlusconi, Blair, Bush, Chirac and Putin get drunk lying on sun-beds on an oil slick wearing only swimming trunks in their national colours.

Criticism of the ad-man’s “best of all possible worlds”, or of the USA’s proclivity for exporting democracy, religion and McDonald’s, was so mild as to be nearly affectionate. Altogether, the tone of the show – handled practically as revue, with number after number - was more festive than not, so that the occasional serious messages – on McCarthyism, for example, or when, during the finale (“… make our garden grow”), images were projected of oil slicks, melting ice caps, landfill, smoking chimneys, etc – seemed “token” and out of place. This “neglect” of the underlying seriousness of the work was one cause for press criticism, as was the rewriting of the dialogues (with the Bernstein estate’s approval) to fit the concept. But the strongest complaints concerned the amplification, blamed by some on the choice of Lambert Wilson, more an actor than a singer, to “host” the show as Voltaire, Pangloss and Martin.

Miking certainly didn’t suit William Burden’s light tenor voice and made Anna Christy’s shrill (“like Pinky and Perky,” a friend suggested to me later). It was also unflattering to the orchestra, audibly unused to this type of job. I got used to it after a while, but some people certainly did not, and I admit I did wonder whether anyone other than Wilson needed it – even though Kim Criswell’s voice no longer has quite the Ethel-Merman-like clarion quality it once had.

In any case, there were huge video production pantechnicons outside and cameras dotted around the theatre, so I would imagine we’ll have a DVD of this show soon; and on DVD, these problems will be irrelevant. For those happy to have a Candide that makes some sense without taking things too seriously, it will be a good buy.

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