Bernstein “Candide”, London Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, Kristjan Jarvi, Barbican Hall

Posted on June 6th, 2011

Leonard Bernstein’s most bountiful score – a mouth-watering confection of sugar and spice and all things nice – is also a masterpiece of parody and counter-parody. Voltaire’s Candide was short and pithy; Bernstein and his legion of collaborators (this was a Broadway breech-birth if ever there was one) went for long and elaborate and terminally frothy. It can be staged to stunning effect – Robert Carsen’s production, seen at ENO a couple of years back, raised the bar for doing so – but for concert presentation Bernstein and John Wells devised a tartly apposite narration ripe for topical updating.

Rory Kinnear breezed on here as the cynical voice of disbelief – master of ceremonies-cum-stand-up comic. I suspect the best one-liners were his own. But at least we could hear all his words and that became a real bone of contention in this sporadically sparkling performance under Kristjan Jarvi. Such amplification as there was proved simply too vague for the verbal acrobatics of the piece and with a full-blown London Symphony Orchestra to get across, the voices should have been radio-miked. Yes, the text was printed in the programme but with the auditorium in total darkness for act one disgruntled voices were clearly raised at the interval because, lo and behold, in act two there was light.

But we shouldn’t need to have our heads buried in the text. Perhaps a singing actor as opposed to the somewhat occluded baritone of Jeremy Huw Williams would have better brought Dr. Pangloss and the bitter Martin into focus – and Kiera Duffy’s Cunegonde could certainly have done with some help. She could despatch the dizzying coloratura of her show-stopper “Glitter and Be Gay” like so many ropes of cultured pearls, for sure, but the temptation to over-gild the parody collapsed, as it so often does, into embarrassing excess.

Then along came Kim Criswell’s Old Lady, a back-combed nightmare of big hair, to show us how “easily assimilated” a musical theatre performer is into the high Iberian camp of Lenny’s Costa del Sol. I was much impressed, too, by Andrew Staples’ simply and touchingly sung Candide. No over-gilding there but rather a touch of Italianate ardour in Bernstein’s self-confessed Puccini aria “Nothing More Than This” with its gravely regretful string counterpoint.

We were finally and totally overwhelmed as the London Symphony Chorus went a capella into the climax of that best of all possible anthems “Make Our Garden Grow”. If ever a tune (and what a tune) encapsulated the sentiment “Let dreamers dream what worlds they please” this one does – now and forever.

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