Review: Sydney Philharmonia Choirs’ take on Bernstein’s Candide provides a mish-mash of all possible worlds

For years people have been perplexed by Leonard Bernstein’s Candide. Is it an operetta? A comedy? Musical theatre? A little of all of the above? Perhaps the safest description is that of “comic operetta,” where the draw-card is some dynamic and electric music. Mitchell Butel directs this latest production, which coincides with what would have been Bernstein’s 100th birthday. The atmosphere of the music was lively and tuneful but the story remained quite enigmatic.

Candide is based on Voltaire’s novella from 1759. Famous composer and conductor, Leonard Bernstein teamed up with acclaimed lyricists like: Dorothy Parker, Stephen Soundheim, Richard Wilbur and others, when creating his adaptation. Bernstein was writing Candide as he was composing West Side Story. No prizes for guessing which of these two had the greater success. But one thing’s for certain, Candide attracts a fervent and reverent crowd, as was the case at this Concert Hall debut.

Neil Finn was wrong when he said that “History never repeats.” The themes in Voltaire’s work still resonate with modern audiences. There is the issue of establishments and authority figures, like the church and our political heads of state. Phillip Scott of The Wharf Revue fame was the narrator for the evening and he held what he could of the story together. There were more than a few moments where some of the jokes and asides wouldn’t have been out of place on the Revue’s show. The crowd certainly laughed at these clever gags.

In this Sydney Opera House show by the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, the eponymous star Candide is a character that is the bastard cousin with an optimistic worldview. He is played by acclaimed opera singer, Alexander Lewis. Candide and some other youngsters are initially under the tutelage of the Professor Pangloss (Scott). The prevailing idea is that the glass is half full and that this is the best of the world.

Photo credit: Grant Leslie
Sydney Philharmonia Choirs – Bernsteins Candide – Grant Leslie Photography

Musical theatre star Annie Atiken (Muriel’s Wedding) does an excellent job in the soprano role. She plays Cunegonde, the love interest of the eponymous character. When their tryst is revealed, Candide is banished. Thus begins a series of misadventures, globe-trotting and mishaps including: segues into the Bulgarian army and travelling to the New World.

Industry stalwart, Brett Weymark conducted the 80-piece Sydney Youth Orchestra. The music shone, especially during the vibrant “Overture” and Cunegonde’s show-stopping aria, “Glitter & Be Gay.” The 300-strong choir framed the stage and provided an added dramatic element to the proceedings. Hearing so many voices united in song was something akin to a religious experience, even if Voltaire may have disagreed with this summary.

The set was quite sparse and featured seven white blocks that were shifted into new configurations to show the ship’s journey and the eventual settlement in the newfound land. The performers did not have a great deal of space to work with in this semi-staged production. Sometimes it was difficult to determine where the characters were supposed to be at any given moment. But this is unsurprising given how confusing this story can be.

There were some modern and local props including: an alien-themed suitcase here, and a Sydney Swans scarf, there. The latter was quite an interesting addition and contrast to the costumes, as some were adorned with artistic, 3D flourishes. There were actually some minor costuming mishaps but the actors didn’t dwell on this and kept on with the show.

Broadway star Caroline O’Connor received an enthusiastic reception as The Old Lady with half a buttock. This was one of the many absurd moments in this piece. These farcical elements brought a lightness to the proceedings, which worked well alongside the warm, orchestral tunes. This show was such a hybrid of different things, it was like seven worlds colliding at times. It may not have been the most cohesive or clear-thinking thing, but there was no denying it was spirited and fun.

Candide was a strange, sprawling beast of a show that skipped through so many different cornerstones of entertainment. There was high drama and sadness, as well as joy and whimsy. As a taster to a comic operetta this was a pleasing, episodic experience. Voltaire may have written the story in 1759 but there is no question that this still resonates with modern audiences. A satire written during the period of enlightenment, this story proves there is still power and passion wherever authority figures lie. The only thing is, you may need a map to help navigate these murky waters.


Photo credit: Grant Leslie

The reviewer attended the performance in the Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House on September 29.