Scottish Opera: Candide
40 Edington Street, Glasgow
Where do you want opera to take you? Lisbon, Paris, Buenos Aires, Suriname and Venice? Check. On a philosophical journey, along the catwalk and to fleshpots and sex dungeons? Check. Into war zones, across viciously-patrolled borders and on an inflatable boat to a new life as a refugee? Check. From one of the most familiar overtures in 20th century music through less well-known terrain that is filled with echoes of the scores to stories old and new that you already know? Check.
Scottish Opera’s new production, programmed with admirable cheek at the peak of the Edinburgh Festival and Fringe, has an extravagant address of its own: Live at No 40, New Rotterdam Wharf, on the canal side of the company’s technical centre in Edington, beyond where it staged La boheme and Falstaff during lockdown. What the company has purpose built in a vast rigid tent, filled with platforms, containers, curtain-sided trailer and trucks that become the stages, is an event – and one that everyone who loves opera, musical theatre or spectacle should rush to see. It is also an ideal introduction to any of those to the uninitiated.
The company has a significant history with Leonard Bernstein’s long-in-development adaptation of Voltaire. At the end of the 1980s, then music director John Mauceri undertook a major revision of the work by his mentor, and Lenny himself became involved in the latter stages of a revival that resulted in the “Scottish Opera version”, which is, of course, the basis of the new production.
I’d wager, however, that neither Mauceri nor Bernstein could have envisaged what director Jack Furness, conductor Stuart Stratford and their respective teams have created for this 21st century staging. Utterly true to both Voltaire and Bernstein – and using the long list of wordsmiths who have contributed to it, Lillian Hellman, Stephen Sondheim and John Wells among them – this is a Candide that is a bold satirical swipe at the ills of the world today: social media, pornography, perilous journeys by refugees, sleazy politicians and aggressive miliary invasions among them.
It is also a story of love winning out against the odds, and a vehicle for some of the most hilarious slapstick broad humour and slick verbal wit, while containing sumptuous music that may well find you choking back tears at times.
The number of performers involved in creating this rich spectacular is huge. Prominent on the central raised platform are Stratford and the orchestra, playing at their best, and largely confined to their station, although one clarinet does go walkabout. Everything else is constantly in motion; when Candide’s journey reaches Venice Carnival the gaming tables are all around us and the action and singing projected from all points of the compass in quite dizzying style.
But then, it all began in that way, with the chorus suddenly revealed as being amongst the paying public promenading in the arena. That ensemble is also revealed as being a multi-ethnic, many-aged collective with professional singers among them. They move brilliantly together, with many individual step-out moments, and sing with passion and precision; this choir sounds brilliant.
The principals would have to be on their mettle to match them, and this cast certainly is. Levels of experience range for Scottish Opera Emerging Artist Lea Shaw to company stalwarts Susan Bullock and Jamie MacDougall, with Ronald Samm (Dr Pangloss) previously featuring in ScotOp’s Pagliacci in Paisley, the recent production this most closely resembles.
The three young singers at the heart of the tale, Dan Shelvey as Maximilian, Paula Sides as Cunegonde, and William Morgan in the title role are all quite superb performers in spectacular voice, up for everything that Furness throws at them in his brilliant re-imagining of the work.
But that goes for everyone performing, and – on the evidence of the first night – for the audience as well.
Further performances August 13, 14,16, 18 and 20.
Picture (l to r) William Morgan (Candide), Paula Sides (Cunegonde), Lea Shaw (Paquette), and Dan Shelvey (Maximillian). Credit James Glossop.