Flash mob chorus and Big Brother set: Bernstein's Candide for the 21st century

·3-min read
From left: Paula Sides as Cunegonde, Lea Shaw as Paquette, Dan Shelvey as Maximillian and William Morgan as Candide in Scottish Opera's new production - JAMES GLOSSOP
From left: Paula Sides as Cunegonde, Lea Shaw as Paquette, Dan Shelvey as Maximillian and William Morgan as Candide in Scottish Opera's new production - JAMES GLOSSOP

Scottish Opera’s Live at No 40 mini-festival started last year as an al fresco response to the pandemic. Now that the threat from Covid has, blessedly, diminished, it has moved inside, to a massive, fully covered, tent-style auditorium.

The 2022 programme opens with Leonard Bernstein’s 1956 operatic take on Voltaire’s satirical novel Candide. Directed by Jack Furness – whose magnificent staging of Dvorak’s Rusalka has been the toast of this year’s Edinburgh International Festival – it is a brilliantly bold production.

Unlike last year – when the orchestra for David McVicar’s fantastic Falstaff had to be hidden away from the elements inside the studios building, with their playing amplified electronically – the musicians can now perform in the auditorium itself. This makes a tremendous difference.

Bernstein’s piece is played in promenade, with the cast and a large community chorus performing in close proximity to the audience. From the outset – when the Westphalian castle in which we meet the optimistic, young Candide is transformed into a reality TV house, à la Big Brother – it’s clear that Furness has brought Voltaire’s narrative firmly into the 21st century. Cunegonde (the baron’s beautiful daughter) is a fashion model with millions of social-media followers, while Dr Pangloss (the great teacher of optimism) is a garishly attired American populist philosopher with a rock star persona.

As Candide finds himself expelled from Westphalia – like an unsuccessful Big Brother contestant – the audience that is promenading (seated tickets are available) finds itself surprised by the chorus. The 80-strong group of community singers (comprised of asylum seekers, refugees and settled inhabitants of Glasgow) pop up within our midst – like one of those wonderful flash mobs that suddenly entertain an unsuspecting public in a train station or a city square.

Susan Bullock (centre) as The Old Lady in Candide - JAMES GLOSSOP
Susan Bullock (centre) as The Old Lady in Candide - JAMES GLOSSOP

Our hero’s picaresque journey around the world – in which he learns irrefutably that Panglossian optimism is bunkum – takes him through warfare, state repression, seafaring disaster, natural catastrophe and all manner of human weakness (not least, sexual and financial). The action – often expressed in hilariously decadent terms – explodes from within suddenly exposed shipping containers and trucks.

In Argentina, the lecherous and macho governor of Buenos Aires pursues his lust for Cunegonde’s cross-dressed brother Maximilian, mistaking him for a man. When we get to Uruguay (the first country in the world to legalise cannabis), we find Montevideo is filled with marijuana plants.

Boasting universally superb performances – not least from William Morgan (Candide), Paula Sides (Cunegonde) and Ronald Samm (Pangloss) – this is a magnificently confident and colourful production. The orchestra, under the baton of Stuart Stratford, rises to the occasion with all of the effervescence that the great score requires.

In the extraordinary conclusion – in which the biggest cheer from the audience comes when Boris Johnson’s severed head is paraded on a stick – performers sing from stages throughout the vast auditorium in a glorious example of 360 degree opera. Deliciously witty and audacious, this is Candide delivered with a chutzpah of which Bernstein would, surely, have approved.

Until August 20. Tickets: 0141 248 4567; scottishopera.org.uk