Review: CANDIDE at Her Majesty's Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre

Bernstein's zany operetta based on Voltaire's novella.

By: May. 25, 2024
Review: CANDIDE at Her Majesty's Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre
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Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Friday 24th May 2024.

The Scottish Opera edition of Candide, adapted from the philosopher Voltaire’s (François-Marie Arouet) 1759 novella, is a joint production by State Theatre Company of South Australia and State Opera South Australia, with the State Opera Chorus and students from the Elder Conservatorium of Music, and with music provided by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra.

I will state, up-front, that this is the best of all possible performances and you should rush to buy tickets.

The music, of course, is by Leonard Bernstein, with a book by Hugh Wheeler, and lyrics by Richard Wilbur, with additional lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, John Latouche, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, and Leonard Bernstein. The orchestrations are by Leonard Bernstein and Hershy Kay, with musical continuity and additional orchestrations by John Mauceri.

Candide has not been seen in Adelaide since 2004, when it was a part of the State Opera of South Australia’s Young Artist Studio Program, at the Opera Studio, and an entry in that year’s Fringe, with Anthony Hunt as musical director, Andy Packer as director, Patrick Lim as Candide, Angela Black as Cunégonde, and Johanna Allen as The Old Lady. I recall Adam Goodburn also excelling in several roles.

This concert version is Co-Directed by the Artistic Director of State Theatre, Mitchell Butel, who is also the narrator and plays Dr. Pangloss, with Amy Campbell as Co-Director & Choreographer. Anthony Hunt must be exceptionally pleased to have been given the opportunity to conduct this operetta again after two decades, this time with the vast numbers of excellent singers and musicians at his command.

Voltaire’s satirical novel was written at the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment and he lampooned the philosopher, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716), who earlier put forward the view that this is the best world that God could have created. His doctrine was known as Leibnizian optimism, or Optimisme, and he claimed that God is just, in spite of the fact that evil obviously existed, detailing his philosophy in Théodicée (1710; Theodicy).

Encyclopaedia Britannica sets out his argument as follows:
1. God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent;
2. God created the existing world;
3. God could have created a different world or none at all (i.e., there are other possible worlds);
4. Because God is omnipotent and omniscient, he knew which possible world was the best and was able to create it, and, because he is omnibenevolent, he chose to create that world;
5. Therefore, the existing world, the one that God created, is the best of all possible worlds.

This became the basis for Voltaire’s work, bringing in elements of the real world at the time, which stood in direct opposition to this view. There are plenty of analyses of Voltaire’s Candide and Liebniz’s work to be found on the Internet, for those with an inquiring mind. Voltaire’s The Age of Louis XIV is also an excellent work for putting everything into context. As his writings were provocative, Voltaire often had to move, even spending time in England.

Voltaire references, among other things, the Spanish Inquisition, which saw vast numbers of heretics tortured and burned alive in God’s name, an event known as an Auto da Fé (act of faith), and the Great Lisbon earthquake of 1755, by which that same God supposedly killed around 100,000 people in one of the most strongly Catholic cities. It was Lillian Hellman, seeing parallels in the McCarthy era, with the House Un-American Activities Committee, who suggested the adaptation to Bernstein.

Before anything else can happen, of course, there is the Overture, and the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra under Anthony Hunt’s acute conducting, generates a high level of excitement, deserving the thunderous applause that followed. Mitchell Butel, as the narrator, then set the scene for what is to follow, introducing the main characters.

Candide, a naïve young man, who has led a life sheltered from the realities of the real world and has been tutored by Doctor Pangloss to believe that this is the best of all possible worlds, falls in love with Cunégonde, the daughter of Baron Thunder ten Tronckh. Candide is the Baron’s illegitimate nephew. Furious at having caught them kissing, the Baron bans him from Westphalia. Sent into exile, Candide is captured by, and conscripted into the Bulgarian army and sent to war against his former home, destroying the castle and losing sight of Cunégonde. The narrative then becomes his journey around the world, meeting the most bizarre people, avoiding those who mean him harm, gathering and losing riches, and searching for his lost love, discovering, through many misadventures, that “the best of all possible worlds” is not at all what he had been brought up to believe.

Candide, Paquette, the Baroness’s maid, Cunégonde, and Maximilian, the Baron’s narcissistic son, introduce themselves in song, telling how happy they all are, and Butel steps into the role of Pangloss, with a change in voice and demeanour, leading into the song, The Best of All Possible Worlds, stating the theme of the operetta and explaining bad things are actually good, by twisting them through illogical logic into positives. Pangloss leaves with Paquette for a little private ‘tuition’, and they are observed by Cunégonde, who decides to try the same experiment with Candide. He quickly proposes marriage and pictures a rosy future, raising a family on their own farm. All hopes are then dashed, when the Baron banishes him. After that, it is all downhill.

Candide is played by Alexander Lewis, who gives a wonderful performance as the gormless antihero. Once, opera singers walked forward, faced the audience square on, braced themselves, and sang, with the focus only on the voice. Those days are, thankfully, gone. Lewis, and the rest of the cast with him, embodies the modern style. Yes, of course he has a superb voice, but he can also act and dance, and that is essential in this operetta. But wait, there’s more. His comic timing is spot on and, no doubt, the two co-directors had a hand in this, in their work with Lewis, and the rest of the cast.
Annie Aitken plays Cunégonde, the object of Candide’s desire, and the object of lust of just about every man she meets, starting with the Bulgarian army. Her costume, with its layer upon layer of brightly coloured skirt, accents her movements as she flounces around the stage, her girlishness at the start slowly falling away. Later, shared by two powerful men, Don Issachar and Cardinal Archbishop, Cunégonde receives gifts of jewellery from both and, displaying the gifts, Aitken brings down the house with her coloratura song, Glitter and Be Gay.

Mitchell Butel turns narration into a comedic art, and then excels as Dr. Pangloss. He makes the role his own in a marvellous performance. The multifaceted Butel is just as much at home here in this dark, surreal, musical comedy as he was recently in a most sensitive dramatic role. It was already enough that he had revitalised the State Theatre Company under his artistic directorship, but forming this co-production with State Opera is a masterstroke, and this resulting production is sure to be talked about for a long time.

Maximilian is played by ‘Hans’ (Matt Gilbertson), the high-camp ‘German’ piano accordionist, much loved in the Adelaide and international cabaret scenes. Perhaps, more accurately, on the other hand, Maximilian plays Hans. All of the familiar ‘Hans’ characteristics are there, along with the costumes and, of course, the hats. He makes the most of every scene in which Maximilian appears, much to the delight of the audience.

Paquette is portrayed by newcomer, Taylah Johns, who impresses in the role, making Paquette vivacious, cheeky, and confident, assuredly capable of getting her own way with the men she encounters. Her career will be worth watching as I am sure that she’ll go far.

It is always a great pleasure to see Caroline O'Connor performing, her versatility and enthusiasm know no bounds. She is absolutely wonderful as The Old Lady with one buttock, the daughter of a Pope, and manages to stop the show with one of her numbers. She obviously has fun with the opportunities offered by her character being Spanish, and easily steals a few scenes along the way. She is definitely the reigning queen of Australian musical theatre divas.

Michaela Burger has been busy carving out a career in cabaret and Fringe performances, and she appears as the Alchemist, and the Alternate Narrator. A popular performer, her performance here adds to her reputation for quality work.

Rod Schultz is a State Opera stalwart, and can be relied upon to turn in a memorable performance every time, as he does here in multiple roles as the Baron, the Bear-Keeper, Don Issachar, Father Bernado, and Ragotski, each portrayal nicely delineated.

John Longmuir appears as the Captain, the Governor, Vanderdendur, the Junkman, and the Crook. The Baroness and the Cosmetic Merchant are played by Rosie Hosking. Ezra Juanta plays the Doctor, Cardinal Archbishop, the Aide, El Senor, and the Prefect. There is great work from these three who also turn in very fine performances in these many brief roles, with each character clearly defined.

Then, there is the combined chorus, and what a superb group they are. They don’t an easy time, either, as they have their own set of choreography to deal with, and a costume change. They earned their applause.

The performance ends with Make Our Garden Grow as Candide sets out on a new philosophy, which is embraced by Cunégonde, with everybody else joining in, before the orchestra played for the bows to close the show. Extended applause, continuing through the exit of the principals, left no doubt that this was an entirely successful production.

There is a degree of staging involved, with seven cubes that get rearranged, and light up in changing colours, set against a polka dot set, realised by Ailsa Paterson. The colourfully bright Costume Design by Brendan de la Hay is stunning, and the Lighting Design by Gavin Norris, and Sound Design by Adam Budgen, put the icing on the cake.

The downside to this production is that there are only four performances. It deserves a longer run. It should tour to other states. Those poor unfortunate souls should have the opportunity to see the sort of high-quality entertainment that we get to enjoy in Adelaide.

The final performance is at 7:30 Saturday night. You might still be lucky enough to score a ticket, if you are very quick


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