ENO at the Coliseum
5 July 2008
Bernstein's Candide has its roots firmly not in the European Enlightenment but in 50s America.
For its French première, Canadian director Robert Carsen embraced that setting, right from the delicious “Volt-air” tv montage which accompanied the familiar overture. The best of all possible worlds clearly the post-war US of A.
The picaresque plot works well in this cartoon cut-out framework, and the story was told with wry humour and deadpan delivery by the excellent Alex Jennings, who played not only Voltaire but the advocate of Optimism, Dr Pangloss, and his unfortunate antithesis Martin.
A stylish Cunegonde from Marnie Breckenridge, and a beautifully sung hero from Toby Spence, who managed to look [and often sound] 18, innocent, and American. Coliseum stalwart Bonaventura Bottone sang a number of roles, including the Red-neck, White-trash, Blue-collar immigration officer. The audience warmed to Beverley Klein as the Old Woman whose misfortunes make Candide's look trifling, and it was good to see Simon Butteriss taking time off from G&S for a couple of telling cameos, including one of a pair of camp stewards.
Not all of the satirical points made sense. Voltaire's savage wit was not directed at any one ideology or any one nation. His New World was not the USA but a land unspoilt until the Westerners arrived. The deposed kings seemed a cheap laugh – it played better on the continent, perhaps. And the old Titanic gag – from Coward's Cavalcade – was dredged up not once but twice.
Rumon Gamba conducted a large operatic orchestra in the Coliseum pit, but otherwise the sound-world was very much that of Broadway – everything amplified and often unfocussed. Little point in having one of the leading tenors of his generation if the mixing desk might have made a lesser voice sound as good ...