Bernstein: Candide at MusikTheater an der Wien | Live Review

Mark Pullinger
Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Marin Alsop leads a performance full of humour and sparkle of the great Maestro's operetta in Vienna


Matthew Newlin as Candide surrounded by dancers | Photo: Werner Kmetitsch

Opera? Operetta? Musical? Perhaps because Candide doesn’t slot into a neat category, it has struggled to find its niche in the repertoire. The work of a multitude of librettists – but only one composer, Leonard Bernstein – it has existed in many guises and revisions. The 'final definitive version' as conducted by the composer at London’s Barbican in 1989 – a year after the 'definitive version' prepared by John Mauceri, under the Bernstein’s supervision, for Scottish Opera – assigns most of the dialogue to a narrator, much as in the original Voltaire novel (1759) satirising Enlightenment ideals on the theme of 'optimism'.

MusikTheater an der Wien has staged a notable coup in securing permission from the Leonard Bernstein Office to mount the 1989 concert version in the new production by American director Lydia Steier. With Vincent Glander as a wonderfully laconic narrator, the action careers along from one scene to the next, a bawdy Broadway romp that’s high on camp. This narrative frame is especially helpful in Act 2 where the work’s dramatic thread frays, although Steier cannot entirely mask its weaker spots and some numbers don’t entirely zing.

Paul Knights as Charles Edward, Benjamin Heil as Stanislaus, Arvid Assarsson as Hermann Augustus, James Newby as Tsar Ivan and Benjamin Savoie as Sultan Achmet | Photo: Werner Kmetitsch

Momme Hinrichs’ cardboard cutout sets parody theatrical styles, but are lots of fun, especially the running (sailing?) gag with the boats that clunkily transport Candide from one escapade to the next, his route charted on video map projections. The action is contained within receding illuminated frames that bring more than a touch of cabaret revue to proceedings. Ursula Kudrna’s costumes are brightly over-the-top.

Steier navigates 'The Kings’ Barcarolle' with great humour, recast as dictators bobbing around in lifebelts, the monosyllabic Stanislaus ('Ugh!') played as Donald Trump, complete with MAGA baseball cap and orange water wings. Dance plays a strong element, toreadors stripping to their glittery underwear in the Old Lady’s 'I am Easily Assimilated', high-kicking cardinals at the auto-da-fé and sailors adding a South Pacific-style routine in Vanderdendur’s 'Bon Voyage'. 

Despite the knockabout fun, Steier lands a serious punch or two, particularly regarding the gold-clad natives of Eldorado, who in this production are all dead by the end of Candide’s gentle ballad, exposed to infection brought across the Atlantic by the Europeans. And the scene where the scales fall from Candide’s naïve eyes and he realises the world is not as rosy as his tutor Dr Pangloss painted it is genuinely touching.

The cast of Candide by Leonard Bernstein at MusikTheater an der Wien | Photo: Werner Kmetitsch

There was plenty of gusto in the performance. The touchpaper was lit by a sparkling rendition of the overture, a potpourri of the show’s hit tunes, by the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. Matthew Newlin captured the naïvety of the perpetual optimist, Candide, his tenor elegant and earnest, his wig – a shock of blond hair – giving him an endearing innocence. Nikola Hillebrand’s Cunegonde was far from innocent, her 'Glitter and Be Gay' showpiece delivered from a four-poster bed, reaching its coloratura climax in a frenetic gangbang. Hillebrand is the real deal, sparkling top notes cascading effortlessly in the work’s most demanding role.

Ben McAteer made light work of Pangloss’ witty numbers – happily, both syphilis songs are included in this version – along with his alter-ego Martin’s pessimistic 'Words, Words, Words'. Helene Schneiderman camped it up as the Old Lady, a born survivor, laying on the accents thick and fast. Baritone James Newby was in fine voice as the vain Maximilian, while soprano Tatiana Kuryatnikova relished the coquettish maid, Paquette. The Arnold Schoenberg Choir threw themselves into the production with their usual abandon and Glander’s deadpan delivery was spot on, landing plenty of laughs along the way.

Is this the best of all possible solutions to Bernstein’s thorny problem child? I’ve a feeling that Lenny would have loved it.

Candide is at MusikTheater an der Wien until 3 February |

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