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Leonard Bernstein’s CANDIDE – the best of all possible whirls?

By , 28/07/2012

Leonard Bernstein – CANDIDE

Cast: Cameron Barclay (Candide) / Barbara Graham (Cunegonde) / Bianca Andrew (Paquette) / Kieran Rayner (Maximilian / Nick Dunbar (Pangloss/Martin) / Helen Medlyn (Old Lady) / Richard Greager (Grand Inquisitor et al.) / Thomas Atkins (Archbishop et al.)

Narrator: Ray Henwood

The Orpheus Choir of Wellington

The Vector Wellington Orchestra

Conducted by Mark W.Dorrell

Directed by Sara Brodie

Wellington Town Hall

Saturday, 28th July 2012

Pity the poor music-theatre historian charged with the task of drawing together the different strands of creative impulse that have, at various times, produced successive versions of Leonard Bernstein’s amazingly durable stage-work Candide. To read of the different productions and seemingly endless revisions, complete revampings included, is to be made to feel as though one’s head has been spun in a kind of Voltairesque whirl. Forget the fraught operatic gestations and accompanying thrills and spills of works such as Bizet’s Carmen, Verdi’s Don Carlos or Britten’s Gloriana – Lenny’s Candide beats them all!

Basically, the work began its public life in 1956 with Lilian Hellman’s adaptation of Voltaire’s classic novella/satire, and with additional lyrics by luminaries such as Dorothy Parker, all set to music by Bernstein. When the show didn’t last past seventy-odd performances, Hellman’s book bore most of the blame – too serious and weighty, said the critics. It wasn’t until 1973 that another attempt was made with Hal Prince’s idea of a stripped-down, racier version, with an entirely new book written by Hugh Wheeler. A lot of the original music was cut and the orchestration drastically reduced. Though clocking up over seven hundred performances, it just wasn’t the Candide that its composer had originally envisaged, and really wanted to see.

Rehabilitation of the original’s style and spirit came with conductor John Mauceri’s reconstruction (with the composer’s imprimatur) for a 1988 staging in Glasgow, and also with Bernstein’s own 1989 recording, largely of what Mauceri and writer John Wells (of “Yes Minister” fame) had achieved (incidentally, this evening’s conductor Mark Dorrell remembers being involved as repetiteur of the 1988 production at Scottish Opera to which Bernstein came and actually conducted a rehearsal – a treasurable experience!).

So, what we got on Saturday evening was largely this latter version that Bernstein himself recorded, but with further reworkings based on an even later London production, as “authorized” an edition as could be gleaned from the work’s history of comings and goings – the best of all possible solutions, of course! And what a riot, what a firecracker, what a sizzler of a performance we got from conductor, choir and orchestra, and with Ray Henwood’s wonderfully mordant delivery as narrator illuminating every twist and turn of the fantastical array of improbable events.

I thought the Orpheus Choir astonishing wonderful – its members were the out-and-out heroes of the evening, with Mark Dorrell as their inspirational general. Sara Brodie’s direction all but completely transcended any sense of “chorus convention” by treating the choir as a “character” in its own right, one all too willing to express its views of the proceedings by whatever means at its disposal – gesture and movement as well as voices (including a “Mexican wave” at one point, and some wonderfully nonchalant bottom-swaying accompanying the insouciant “What’s the Use” Waltz in Act Two!). It all worked brilliantly, inestimably aided by the choir’s superb diction, delivering the words with focus and energy throughout.

The orchestra was almost as good, strings, winds and percussion particularly nimble-fingered, and with only an occasional sluggishness from the brass in places during Act One to pick up their cues (a bit more spunk needed from them in the overture for example) detracting from an otherwise brilliant evening’s playing. Conductor and players “caught” so well the atmosphere and rhythmic character of episodes like the “Paris Waltz” and the “I Am Easily Assimilated” Tango, even if during the latter Helen Medlyn, like the other soloists most of the time, sounded inexplicably underpowered, leaving the chorus to supply the necessary vocal fabric of the sinuous melody.

Enjoying as we did these instrumental and vocal splendors from orchestra and chorus, it was disappointing to find that almost all the solo singers were hard to hear at various times, rendering the all-important words mostly inaudible – or at least from where I was sitting in the hall. I wasn’t the only “hard-of-hearing” audience member, as a number of people I spoke with both at the interval and subsequent to the show confirmed my impression. What seemed to be needed was either subtitles, or (wash my mouth out with soap and water!) discreet microphonic assistance, perhaps? Considering that the voice of the narrator, Ray Henwood, was resplendently and sonorously miked, it may well have been appropriate for other solo voices to have been thus augmented.

Of the soloists, Richard Greager (as The Grand Inquisitor and a number of other cameo roles) consistently gave much pleasure, putting his words across with the expected verve and focus, something I was also anticipating from Helen Medlyn (whose work I’ve always greatly admired), only to find myself straining to catch what she was singing a lot of the time. Before people start to accuse me of making a meal out of this, I ought to point out that, if ever music-theatre words ought to be heard and savored, those of “Candide” ought to be – and the loss is considerable if they’re not coming across. I should also add that I thought the acting of every one of the singers characterful and engaging, thanks to both their individual talents and director Sara Brodie’s skills at using the semi-staged environment to its best advantage.

As Candide, Cameron Barclay caught the essential sweetness and naivety of the character, his voice clearer in the more lyrical numbers such as “It Must Be So”, beautiful and touching in the “It must be Me” reprise, introduced by the full orchestra. His partnership with the appealing Cunegonde of Barbara Graham brought similar lovely moments, culminating in the almost Mahlerian “Make Our Garden Grow” at the very end of the work. Projecting similar innocence, with touches of characterful pizzazz, Barbara Graham’s much-violated but remarkably enduring heroine displayed plenty of beauty and spunk throughout, her words perhaps not consistently projected with the required focus, but her voice making the most of those displays of coloratura in “Glitter and Be Gay”.

A great moment for both Cunegonde and The Old Lady was their Act Two duet “We Are Women”, Graham and Medlyn both relishing their words, “We’ve necks like swans, and, oh, such sexily legs / We’re so light-footed we could dance on eggs”, and putting across all the sex appeal one could want in the process. Plenty of libidinous impulse was generated also by Bianca Andrew’s sultry servant-girl Paquette, who didn’t have a great deal to sing solo, but whose voice and provocative deportment added inestimably to sequences such as Act One’s “The Best of All Possible Worlds”, and the glorious “What’s the Use?” in Act Two’s casino scene. As with Bianca Andrew, Thomas Atkins, singing the Archbishop and other cameo characters, also had enough vocal heft to make his few solo lines properly tell.

Both Kieran Raynor’s Maximilian (the King’s son) and Nick Dunbar’s Dr.Pangloss were characterizations fleshed-out with confident, physically well-projected stage-presence. Kieran Rayner’s words I could hear most of the time (a pity that his “Life Is Happiness Indeed” verse was pushed along a notch or so too speedily for the words to really make their point), but I had the utmost difficulty with Nick Dunbar’s ennunciations – most of his utterances as the Royal Tutor in “The Best of All Possible Worlds” seemed as if too low for him, so that the voice lacked sufficient girth to properly project the words. Again (I hate myself for suggesting this!), in the interests of getting across the message, perhaps microphones (discreetly employed) would have helped?

So, that caveat registered, the rest I thought a marvellous achievement from all concerned – I loved watching Mark Dorrell sitting down at the end on the conductor’s podium, obviously exhausted, having given his all! Above all, very great credit to the Orpheus Choir, its energy and commitment to the presentation surpassing all expectations and producing a truly memorable result.

 

 

 

 

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