Welsh National Opera,
Venue Cymru, Llandudno
July 5, 2023; 2 hrs 30 mins
This is the best possible world, but how can you say that? The question is the basis of Voltaire's novella, which itself satirises Leibniz's opinion that this is the best possible world.
Leonard Bernstein brought Candide into modernity as an opera in English - one that, like his previous work on West Side Story, straddled the line between opera and musical. Candide has remained a difficult piece to stage; confusing yet strangely likeable, with some glorious, lush music.
This new, absurdist production catches the tone; energetic and fast moving., with meaningful subtle choreography that accentuates the action rather than dominating it. The stand-out features are the animation and set changes, which are creative, simple and imaginative and produce plenty of laughter, moving the action from one continent to another without the need for scenery.
The orchestra, conducted by Karen Kamensek, is on stage but partially hidden by a translucent backdrop, on to which animations are projected illustrating the point that work gives meaning to life. The sound is a little strident at times, yet certain arias are delivered beautifully - especially by leads Ed Lyon (Candide) and Claudia Boyle (Cunegonde).
The opera's plot is typically of its period, with a series of sequential tableaux connected only by the central character, Candide. The plot is simple: "look at these examples of suffering. How can this be the best possible world?"
Nonetheless, Candide's absurdist approach offers plenty of fun, and deliberately makes light of some distressing scenes as it satirises this idea that things generally work out for the best. The opera trawls through things people perceive as tragic: warfare, volcanic eruption, slavery, sexual abuse and discrimination among them. Increasingly it suspends reality and parodies the miraculous, offering the point that life is meaningless. The conclusion? The best world is when life is simple and people work.
Voltaire is right to condemn bigotry, slavery, hypocrisy and sexual exploitation and suggests simply that it is easy to say this is the best possible world when things are going well. He makes a powerful, oft-repeated point: would a world without pain be better? There is suffering in the world, and in many cases it appears meaningless, but a world without pain would be worse, for pain can be a positive thing.
Bernstein felt there was much in common between Enlightenment Europe and the 1950s McCarthyite, Cold War-bound USA. Parallels can also be drawn to our society today, which to many is meaningless, violent and discriminatory.
Maybe because satire remains a valued form of humour, the work has retained its relevance and draws audiences to its warmth and tunefulness, and to this production's mix of fun and underlying seriousness, despite it often being difficult to follow.
Tickets and information here