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June 30, 2011 5:50 pm

Candide, Schiller Theater, Staatsoper Berlin

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“What a day, what a day for an auto-da-fé; it’s a lovely day for drinking and for watching people fry!” The text alone for Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, by a bewildering multiplicity of authors, is a delight.

The overture and Glitter and Be Gay, Cunegonde’s Paris aria, have entered the standard repertoire, but Candide has never been able to match the popularity of West Side Story and is still a rarity on the German stage.

Berlin’s Staatsoper has roped in designer Christian Lacroix, director Vincent Boussard and conductor Wayne Marshall to lend its new production the glamour necessary to lure the crowds. The results bemuse at least as much as they amuse, not least because Candide is so much more complex than its effervescent score suggests.

In Voltaire’s blackly satirical take on Leibniz’s philosophy of optimism, Bernstein found a metaphor for McCarthyist America’s hypocrisy, as well as an excuse for musical globetrotting. That constitutes a few removes more than your average music theatre public expects and a greater stretch of its intellect. Boussard and his team stretch it further by omitting most of the spoken dialogue and setting the action in the glass aquarium of Pangloss’s “physics experiment”. We see a series of pared-down, stylised images, like the pages of a deranged science sketchbook. The tale’s absurdity is complete.

Lavish costumes, slick sets (Vincent Lemaire), cleverly subtle video (Isabel Robson) and athletic choreography (Helge Letonja) combine in an evening of beautiful chaos. Marshall draws impressively fleet playing from the Staatskapelle orchestra and keeps the action hurtling forwards. Leonardo Capalbo is a pin-up-boy Candide, lithe, sunny and effortlessly lyrical. Maria Bengtsson is entirely his match as Cunegonde, with sparkling coloratura and tireless energy. Anja Silja makes a restrained Old Lady, joining the team with wry humour and grace. Graham F. Valentine, the only non-opera-singer of the ensemble, holds his own with impressive musicality and fabulous diction.

More of this last attribute would have helped the evening. As it was, most of the text could only be understood with the help of the German surtitles – a crying shame for all those clever rhymes and wicked puns. Some of the best gags are visual – Stephan Rügamer’s Argentine señor dressed as a Barenboim clone, Bernd Zettisch’s inquisitor in bishop’s regalia with Christmas-tree fairy lights, Silja with a real and a virtual parrot.

What was it all about? Who knows? But it looks and sounds wonderful.

3 stars

Staatsoper

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