Monday, July 21, 2008
Leonard Bernstein was the all-American Mr. Music. He adored applause, he courted it, he got it and he deserved it. On form he was the top conductor, a brilliant communicator, a compelling lecturer/educator/tv talker; his ‘serious’ compositions could be heavy, over intellectual, constipated but his work in popular music fizzed and was first-class: On The Town, Wonderful Town were hits and West Side Story (1957) is one of the great works of the 20th century. His film score for On The Waterfront is a classic.
But Candide, just now having a run of fifteen performance (last one July 12) at the London Coliseum by the English National Opera, that is another matter. It has been a problem child since the start and has been subject to endless revision. The music begins stunningly with a comedy overture in the Rossini class; piquant, tuneful, irrepressible, dashing, cleverly changing tempi to pile up a climax that whets the appetite for the operetta or musical comedy to follow. And then comes a brilliant opening number with unusual tricky rhythms that Max Adrian negotiated so magically in the first London run in the fifties at the Cambridge Theatre put on by Laurence Olivier.
But from then on it’s all downhill. The score turns clever, parodies that don’t click, tunes that sag, the whole thing becomes rather boring. The book is credited to six writers, including the starry names of Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker and Stephen Sondheim. Even Mrs Bernstein wrote one number. And the current producer, Robert Carsen, has freely adapted the mélange in a joint production with La Scala, Milan and the Châtelet, Paris. Maybe something has got lost in transit; maybe the coliseum is too darn big. But the result is stale and too cutely American for words. The rot sets in early as the ear is distracted from hearing the overture because a movie runs right through it and destorys it. The plot, derived from Voltaire’s novella, becomes tedious and the production heaps flashy Pelion on Hollywood Ossa: armies, ship decks, elaborate dance routines (Busby Berkeley, thou shouldst be living at this hour). It is no fault of the performers that the characters are cardboard caperers and do not engage our sympathy or interest. Toby Spence sings pleasantly in the title role. Anna Christy looks a treat in a pink Marilyn Monroe gown; she can hit the high C’s but lower down the staves her voice lacks focus. Alex Jennings plays Pangloss and Voltaire but lacks the spicy individuality of the beloved Max Adrian of fifty years back. Beverley Klein does her best with the crashingly tiresome Old Lady (through pleasantly reminding me of the late Caryl Brahms). Everything happens cutely on cue and I have to say the audience responded (July 4) as if it were enjoying itself.
Since there were so many revisions the writers, including Bernstein himself, he must have known that they were working on a cardboard turkey. ENO keeps on trying to earn money by putting on musicals; bums on seats maybe, but no marks for artistic excellence.