Leonard Bernstein’s Candide is a notoriously flawed operetta. Originally it was a Broadway flop, and Bernstein revised it over and over again in his lifetime. To date, it’s had four different librettos and contributions to the score from six different lyricists. Since Bernstein’s death, directors have been attracted to produce the operetta, seeing it as an opportunity to ‘fix’ Bernstein’s not-quite-masterpiece. This has led to grossly liberal interpretations of the text, serving each director’s ego more than Bernstein’s intent, and meddling unnecessarily with the operetta’s undoubtedly sublime tunes.
Thankfully, a new production of Candide at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London brings things back to basics, allowing the songs to shine and leaving the flaws a little less obvious. Unlike the heavy-handed modernising of the recent English National Opera revival, this production keeps the story rooted firmly in its eighteenth-century setting. The story, adapted from Voltaire’s 1759 satire, begins with the young Candide living a cosy life in ‘the best of all possible castles’. He is a student of Pangloss, a philosopher who teaches his students Leibnizian optimism: ‘All is for the best.’ After professing his love to Cunegonde, his social superior, Candide is banished from the castle. The operetta portrays his gradual disenchantment as he experiences and observes the immense suffering of the world.
One of the strengths of the Menier Chocolate Factory is that no stage is built into the venue, allowing the performance space to be drastically redesigned for each new show. For Candide, the theatre is laid out in-the-round, and balconies have been built to tower above the audience on all sides. This multi-level setting gives the production a frenetic quality that simply wouldn’t have been possible in a traditional theatre.
Superbly acted by an ensemble cast including Gimme Gimme Gimme star James Dreyfus and Les Mis alumnus Fra Fee, a perfect balance is found between Voltaire’s absurd satire as well as the more sincere moments in the story.
Forget about this operetta’s fraught history, this modest production could well be the best production of Candide to hit London in decades.