Wednesday 3 January 2007

Candide, Can-do, Can-don't

Last night we finished catching up on the BBC4 transmission of Bernstein's Candide in the new Robert Carsen production from the Chatelet Theatre. Well, it still had Bernstein's music but what we saw and the dialogue that the singers spoke was a long way from the original.

There have been various attempts to solve the riddle of Candide but a number of relatively recent productions have seemed to do so. Harold Prince produced a version which ran well on Broadway and a number of UK companies have expanded on that, notably the thrilling version at the National Theatre with Simon Russell Beale. As a counterpoint to this, the LSO have continued to build on their Bernstein relationship, he conducted the work with them and they have done concert performances of it since. Though these tended to present the work in a rather inflated version, the lack of amplification and the presence of opera singers meant that the aural experience was vastly improved.

At the Chatelet we had, mainly, opera singers but also amplification; I gathered this from reading reviews, it was not really possible to tell from the TV. But most problematically, Carsen has chosen to re-work the plot as a modern satire moving from JFK's White House to the present day. This means that, though there are a number of dazzling individual moments, the whole adds up to even less of a collective event than did Bernstein's original.

Also Carsen's version aggravates a weakness of the original, the songs don't always (well, hardly ever) originate with the plot they seem grafted on. This was made most obvious with the Old Lady's Tango, I am easily assimilated. As sung by the ever wonderful Kim Criswell, this was some of the best performing of the evening, but it seemed perverse that the musical no. took place on the deck of an Ocean liner, why a tango, why the gay waiters.

By the middle of part 2, we had ceased to care about these characters. In fact, they were hardly characters at all; a problem in the original that Carsen made worse.

Lambert Wilson gave a dazzling performance as Voltaire, Pangloss and Martin, playing Voltaire in French and the other 2 in English; quite brilliant, but Voltaire's part seems to have been expanded. This is quite understandable when presented with a French speaking audience, but particularly in act 1 this lead to a serious feeling of alienation as Voltaire carried the plot and the singers just popped up to sing.

William Burden was fine as Candide, but he lacked youthful charm. Anna Christie was unimpressive as Cunegonde, though some of the shrillness may have been due to the amplification. John Daszak was wasted in his multiple roles, even when called to sing; he just does not have the sort of voice for this music. He should stick to Peter Grimes.

Mind you, I am willing to admit that I am pretty resistent to opera on TV. There are too many distractions and it is too easy to wander off and make pot of tea or something. So I'm not going to pass final judgement on the piece. After all, it is a co-production with ENO and La Scala. So in theory I should be able to see it live at the Coliseum. But La Scala have already announced that they are not taking the production; the management deny it has anything to do with the scene where an actor dressed only in underpants dances round wearing a Silvio Berlusconi mask! So we'll see whether the show makes it to the UK and what it will be like then. After all, Laurent Pelly's La Belle Helene seemed to undergo a sea change (for the worse) when it crossed the channel.

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