candide top

Ed Lyon as Candide, Claudia Boyle as Cunégonde, Gillian Bevan as Pangloss, Francesca Saracino as  Paquette and Mark Nathan as Maximilian.

Pictures: Johan Persson


Welsh National Opera

Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham


Glorious music, great fun, magnificent singing and wonderful, witty and inventive animation in a staging touched by theatrical genius – what a pity this brilliant production has only made a whistle stop in Birmingham in its rush around the nation. For one night only as they say . . . .

The opera is based on Voltaire’s satirical novel of 1759 which poked fun at nationalistic politics and a pervading theory of optimism in 18th century Europe. It was a time of . . . oh, forget the history bit and just sit back and enjoy.

Candide is the illegitimate son of the sister of a baron with an unpronounceable name living in a magnificent schloss in Westphalia. He is brought up as one of the baron’s own, along with beautiful daughter Cunégonde and son Maximilian, whose vanity knows no bounds.

They are taught by Dr Pangloss, whose philosophy is simple: all is for the best in the best of all worlds. The best in the good doctor’s case involves an affair with serving girl Paquette, played by Francesca Saracino, who is also serving, in a similar capacity, the baron.

All is sweetness and light, with a bit on the side, until Candide and Cunégonde fall in love and are caught carrying out a scientific experiment on the effect of combining two bodies. The unpronounceable baron, outraged his daughter is consorting with a . . . bastard . . . banishes Candide which by chance is the same moment that Bulgaria invades Westphalia.

So, the ravishing Cunégonde is . . . well ravished, repeatedly before being put out of her misery by being shot and bayonetted to death. But don’t worry, death is little more than an inconvenience in this tale, she’ll still pop up again later. As Dr Pangloss puts it, death is for the best as it could save you from a worse fate later on. It’s a philosophy that perhaps still needs a little refining.

candid kiss

Ed Lyon as Candide and Claudia Boyle as Cunégonde - it is a love story after all


Later in this particular tale involves a volcanic eruption in Portugal, the Spanish inquisition with a flogging and a couple of hangings, with an appreciative WNO chorus cheering on, a Paris apartment where Cunégonde – now undead and a courtesan - is the sexual plaything of a kinky baron and an even more kinky archbishop . . . on alternate days in case you were wondering.

Then there is a  slave market in Montevideo, a city with a sexual predator of a governor (Aled Hall) with an armed insurrection raging outside in Uruguay involving a Jesuit priest guerilla army, an inhospitable rain forest, a visit to El Dorado, a trip to Surinam (cancelled) and a voyage on a slave galley to Constantinople.

That is where we meet Prince Ragotski (Alun Rhys-Jenkins)who runs a sleazy nightclub-cum-brothel where Cunégonde is a sex worker along with her companion The Old woman (more later). Around the world in 80 Days? Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg had nothing on this lot.

Ed Lyon is a dashing Candide, the nicest man in the world, despite killing the afore mentioned baron and Archbishop and beating Maximilian (Mark Nathan) to death with a spade, animated blood splattering the walls and the spade left sticking through his heart. There just wasn’t time to explain how Max  reappeared full of life and song later, so just accept it.

Lyon has a fine tenor voice and his It Must Be So is quite beautifully sung showing superb voice control in the sad song of loss. His voice blends well with Claudia Boyle’s quite ravishing Cunégonde and what a voice she packs. Her coloratura aria Glitter and be Gay as a kept woman in Paris was simply magnificent hitting top E♭, a test for any soprano, as clear and pure as a bell – and that’s not far off a range only dogs can hear. It’s a difficult piece and she managed it in some style to rapturous and prolonged applause from an appreciative audience.

Along the rather rocky way our lovers, or rather Cunégonde, picked up The Old Woman, we never did know her name, sung with Brünnhilde power by Madeleine Shaw. All we know she is Polish and was the most beautiful and desirable woman in Poland in her prime – although we only have her word for that. Oh, and did I mention she has only one buttock. We never did find out about that either.


One of the brilliant animations behind Madeleine Shaw as The Old Lady, Claudia Boyle as Cunégonde, Ed Lyon as Candide and Dafydd Allen as Captain

And with all this tooing, froing, dying and resurrecting, ravishing – there is rather a lot of ravishing it seems – we need someone to fill in the gaps so enter Gillian Bevan as the narrator - she also moonlights as Dr Pangloss who was hanged in the Spanish inquisition, all for the best of course, only (par for the course) to reappear full of life later, all for the best again.

She has a lovely sense of timing and a delightful matter of fact delivery of some wonderfully funny and witty lines, as well as a fine voice – this is an opera after all.

And throughout it all we have the simply world-class WNO chorus who can make anything that comes their way sound majestic.

Sharing star billing has to be the wonderful staging with a set from Belgian designer Thibault Vancraenenbroeck with what appears to be a curtain of hanging strips of chain mail across the stage acting as both a screen for video projections and as a scrim to highlight actions and scenes behind enhanced by staircases to provide height and levels.

The cast can enter and leave the front stage through projected doorways or arches in the screen adding another level of interest to a fascinating production.

It is a brilliant concept with magical cartoon animations projected on the screen interacting with the cast both in front and behind, It demands absolute precision in positioning by the cast to line up with the animations, sometimes adding humour by huge pointing hands appearing for well rehearsed repositioning, and, of course with a scrim, Rob Casey’s pinpoint lighting design needed to be spot on.

The video and animations came from French illustrator and animator Grégoire Pont and are genuinely funny with singing sheep, souls of the dead (dead at least for a while) characters picked up by a descending giant hand and carried away, a punctured airship (don’t ask) and, a particular favourite the stretched horse, which presumable was the 18th century equivalent of the stretched limo.

The opera, much like half the characters, has had many lives, nine goes at the libretto so I am told, but the one constant is Leonard Bernstein’s score.

Candide was first performed in 1956 and Bernstein was working on it in parallel with the work with which he is perhaps best known in this country, West Side Story which premiered the following year.

And there is similarity between the scores, West Side Story had symphonic elements along with some songs that would not have been out of place in opera.

Candide has a score with elements which would happily fit into a musical and Bernstein’s use of musical forms from Latin to jazz along with operatic provides a score which is full of melody, surprise and interest.

It is a score brought to life when played by the wonderful WNO orchestra, which has been allowed out of the dark underground world of the pit for once to play in the light, in full view across the rear of the stage under renowned Chicago born conductor Karen Kamensek.

Directed by James Bonas this stunning production ends its run on Saturday (15-07-23) at Theatr Brycheiniog, Brecon, but now it is in the repertoire, hopefully, like its characters it will live again soon.

Roger Clarke



Index page Alex Reviews A-Z Reviews by Theatre