Does the satire still bite, 22 years after Bernstein's podium triumph?
When Leonard Bernstein conducted Candide at the Barbican in 1989, we were about to enter the era of 'back to basics' politics; last Sunday night Candide returned to the Barbican with Kristjan Järvi taking the Bernstein role, and as political catchphrases have moved beyond 'things can only get better' to tell us we’re 'all in it together', Candide’s satire of forced ‘best of all possible worlds’ optimism and manipulative sloganeering was a balm – like a knees-up in a time of austerity.
I say Järvi ‘took the Bernstein role’ because those performances in 1989 were all about Bernstein. About Bernstein taking a final lap of honour before his death a year later, about Bernstein presenting what he had needed to call the ‘final revised version’ of his ceaselessly revised and permanently problematic musical? opera? operetta? oratorio? That Candide is all of these things, and none, is what makes Candide Candide, and so absolutely Bernstein. A stage work that is essentially impossible to stage, but that needs a narrator in its concert hall version to lead you through its shaggy-dog story plot and remind you of its Broadway roots. A work birthed by discussions between Bernstein and playwright Lillian Hellman that was touched up/rewritten/refashioned by Dorothy Parker, John la Touche, Stephen Sondheim and Private Eye’s John Wells, as every generation that has engaged with Candide’s challenges has needed to renew the existing blueprint.
And that over 40 years these people of consequence took a creative stake in trying to rationalise what became, paradoxically, an increasingly unclassifiable work, helped embed inside Candide’s structure a drifting, unreal sense of time. The scene-setting fanfare of Bernstein’s overture teleports you to the late 1800s, to the world of Gilbert and Sullivan, Rossini and Johann Strauss, as surely as “New York, New York” places On The Town in 1940s Manhattan. But unlike On The Town, Wonderful Town or West Side Story, Candide steps outside the timeframe it establishes around itself. Partly that’s because of the plot: Voltaire traces his picaresque novel around implausible coincidence and absurdist plot devices, which root his narrative in narrative instability. And as Bernstein spikes the “Auto-da-fé” scene with big-band syncopations, or Candide’s first act meditations (“It Must Be So”, “It Must Be Me”) with ugly-beautiful modalities, or introduces chorales as still moments of reflection that might equally have appeared in Mass or A Quiet Place, the musical conceit ruptures. The only authentic thing about Candide is its inauthenticity.
Drifting back through unreal time…there I was in 1989, aged 18, sitting in the Barbican waiting for Bernstein to appear from the wings to conduct Candide. How much older he suddenly looked! I’d seen him conduct in 1986 when he was robust and magnificent; three years later fragility had crept into his bones. I remember his introductory speech and his mournful expression when he revealed that, during the dark days of the House Un-American Activities Committee, which had subpoenaed Lillian Hellman, he had been denied a passport by his own government. Even today I can feel in my bones the utterly alive sound Bernstein coaxed from the LSO – the push-pull pounce of snare drum and cymbals during the overture, the deep funk of “Auto-da-fé”.
Perhaps Kristjan Järvi felt overwhelmed by Bernstein’s ghost; he’d acquired some Lenny podium choreography, but was an oddly muted and out-of-focus presence. Most eyes were on Kiera Duffy’s flirty, sexpot Cunegonde, while Andrew Staples’ wide-eyed innocent abroad Candide was cleverly observed. Rory Kinnear was the thespy narrator, with an updated narration that included references to scumbag politicians and, er, misunderstandings about their expenses. A gag about German popes – what are the chances of that happening? – was wry enough, but an ill-judged joke aimed at Nick Griffin bombed. Some politicians exclude themselves from the right to be satirised.
I walked away from the performance with renewed admiration for Bernstein’s music – how he stood against the party line during the 1950s, while creating music that still communicates honestly 60 years later. Yet I also felt melancholic. That generation who had the intellectual energy to create this piece have all gone now; 20 years ago they came to London to present their vision, but this performance was like a knowing tribute to past glories, like watching a tribute band who can do all the moves but haven’t really thought about why it is they want to do them. What Candide needed right from its inception was Bernstein on stage, conducting not just the notes, but directing the whole crazy pretence, with his ad-lib Jewish jokes, revealing as much of Candide as he understood – while, as the years went on, recognising that it had grown bigger than anybody originally involved in its conception. Because Candide will always be a riddle, which can never easily be assimilated.
Philip Clark is a critic for Gramophone and The Wire, and a composer-turned-improviser. He tweets as @MusicClerk.