Review – Candide, ENO at the Coliseum

Sunday 6 July 2008

Candide at the English National Opera

“Dear ENO. The West End Whingers would love to see Candide but their policy of paying to see West End shows has reduced them almost to penury and an ENO ticket might well push them over the edge. As both are adamant that they never want to shop at Lidl, they are reduced to begging for two excellent press seats. Andrew has two cats to support and Phil has a very expensive Night Nurse habit.”

Yes, it’s pathetic, but that’s the credit crunch for you. And with stalls seats at £83.00, what can you do?

Fortunately the ENO came up trumps and offered the Whingers FREE seats – “on this occasion”.

Unfortunately the reviews came out the very next day:

  • “Loud, brash, heavy-handed and leaving little to the imagination” Evening Standard
  • “What a load of camp old cobblers” The Times

Too late. The trap had snapped shut.

But with the best possible wills in the world (and, it must be said, feeling rather grand) the Whingers took themselves off to the opera.

Now the Whingers don’t really do opera, but Candide has always fallen somewhat between the two stools (snigger) of opera and musical and splits the difference as “comic operetta”.

Worse still, the Whingers don’t really do optimism and since Voltaire’s Candide (full title Candide or Optimism) is about that dread word Andrew was approaching it with a heavily pessimistic heart (presumably that is what pumps the alcohol round his body). Only the fact that contributors to the lyrics include Lillian Hellman (original co-creator with the Leonard Bernstein), Dorothy Parker and Stephen Sondheim was off-setting his horror at learning of the 3¼ hour advertised running time.

Phil was in far less pessimistic mode. He loves the score and saw both the excellent Scottish Opera production at the Old Vic with Patricia Routledge and the almost-as-good National Theatre production with Simon Russell Beale, Daniel Evans, Denis Quilley and WEW favourite Myra Sands, among others.

Would the Whingers find this Candide the best of all possible Candides?

Set in 1956 inside a giant TV set (Channel Volt-Air – geddit?) the brilliant overture is set against Technicolor footage of the period showing commercials, domestic scenes, space travel and the Kennedys with Saul Bass-inspired credits over the top.

It’s an impressive – almost overwhelming – opening and visually the show keeps this extravagant standard up throughout. Michael Levine‘s sets are fascinating (particularly the forced perspective of TVs within TVs which could so easily have given Andrew one of his heads), there are endless costume changes, a massive orchestra and a cast of nearly 60 – you don’t get that in West End Musicals these days.

In fact, there was so much to enjoy here that it’s difficult to single out the highlights. Alex Jennings seems to be on stage practically all the time (he plays three parts: Voltaire, American tutor Pangloss and road-sweeper Martin) and is absolutely fantastic.

And no musical can really call it self complete without a comic old lady part and fortunately Candide features the scene-stealing Beverley Klein.

Toby Spence is superbly dignified as Candide and Marnie Breckenridge (who confusingly has taken over from Anna Christy, right, in the role of Cunegarde (oops) Cunegonde) is simply terrific.

Now call us philistines, but the trouble with opera singers is that it’s frequently impossible to make out the words. If they were singing the usual opera stuff (“I’m dying, I’m dying” etc) then you would probably get the gist so it wouldn’t matter very much.

But these are often clever, witty or surprising lyrics – “Jehovah could not pardon all / The sins that we call cardinal”, for example; and when was the last time you heard the words “Quod erat demunstrandum” in a song? Thankfully, there are surtitles over the stage – but it’s quite a strain on the neck and it must be very distracting for the cast to see the audience nodding violently. Perhaps opera singers mistake this for mass nods of approval which would explain why they milk the (albeit deserved) applause at the end with such drawn-out curtain calls. Phil in particular was getting quite agitated as the loss of valuable drinking time as each group or character was brought on for their individual plaudits. But then that, the Whingers suppose, is the world of opera for you (Incidentally, you can’t take drinks in the Coliseum auditorium – what’s that all about?).

Ironically, it’s the excellent Alex Jennings (an ENO virgin) who is the only one who can be heard clearly throughout.

Now, perceptive readers may have noticed that the Whingers have so far skilfully circumvented explaining what Candide is about.

This is because Candide is a mess. It always has been a mess by all accounts and this ENO / La Scala, Milan / Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris is even messier. While the Whingers (unlike many of the critics) didn’t generally have any problem with the updated setting of 1950s America (complete with Marilyn Monroe and Some Like it Hot references), the production does push the boundaries into complete nonsense at times: it begins in the Kennedys’ Camelot but then moves to the New World, for example. And the satirical swipes at Tony Blair, Putin et al are heavy handed (and already feel dated despite some last minute alterations to the script).

Heavy-handed too is the utterly downbeat environmental message at the finale which for Phil slightly spoiled the impressive – even spine-tingling – choral singing. Really, you can’t expect to tack a serious message about the end of the world onto a load of camp old cobblers and expect to get away with it.

But none of this really bothered the Whingers – they quickly adjusted into “wash over” mode and let every inconsistency and non-sequiteur pass them by, allowing themselves to be absorbed by the excellence of the music, the top-notch performances and the general opulence of the production.

And it all turned out to be a cynical take on optimism anyway, of which the Whingers thoroughly approve.

Would they have whinged more had they paid £83 a piece for their tickets? Probably, but they are not the sort to pay £83 for tickets in the first place so – in terms of philosophical reasoning- is a fallacy.


Before the curtain went up, the sur-title player was telling people to switch off their mobile phones and pagers (most people did) and to “Write a review!” at

Perhaps not surprisingly most of the reviews are very positive:

  • “This version of Candide really blew my socks off” Andrea
  • “I’ll be recommending this show. Audacious, overwhelming and a thoroughly stimulating night at the theatre.” Martin
  • “This show is a must” Augusta (aged 12)
  • “Rarely have I seen such an exquisite production that transcends the boundaries of opera and musical theatre to create a unique, hybrid sound and visual was one of the most compelling things I have ever seen on the London stage and certainly at ENO.” Adele
  • “My only regret is that Leonard Bernstein is not alive to have seen it. I doubt if he could improved upon your production – and he would have loved it.” Graham

But amid all this gushing is a review by a very promising would-be Whinger by the name of Julian:

The overture was played without any sophistication or sufficient attendance to orchestral balance; the percussion was all too often allowed its head and the score sometimes sounded blowsy, which it is not.

The singers were all miked, chiefly because the dialogue would otherwise have been indecipherable. Also it allowed the principles to sing from upstage, far away from the audience, which became a real irritation. The whole cast was asked to adopt American accents, which most found beyond them.

Full marks to the ENO for its even-handedness. Watch and learn, Greta.


8 Responses to “Review – Candide, ENO at the Coliseum”

  1. Mark I Says:

    Nice quote!

  2. andyroberts Says:

    Oh no, not american accents again.

  3. William Says:

    >> Marnie Breckenridge (who confusingly has taken over from Anna Christy, right, in the role of Cunegarde) is simply terrific

    First off, the character’s name is “Cunegonde”.

    Secondly, there shouldn’t be anything confusing about Ms Breckenridge taking over these later performances. ENO stated in their 11 March press release stated that Christy would sing only through 29 June, and the casting of Ms Breckenridge was announced as far back as May.

    Thirdly, yes, she is terrific, in her physical stage performance, her singing, and her authentic American accent (as she is an authentic American).

  4. How the hell did we miss that 11 March press release?

  5. jmc Says:

    I saw Bernstein’s Candide when the NT did it a few years ago – it pales into insignificance when put beside Prosperi and Jacopetti’s gobsmacking and eye-popping film Mondo Candido…

  6. David Platt Says:

    An overlong, leftist, unsubtle anti-American piece of garbage. The deft touch abandoned for the anti-western sledgehammer. Yawn… Given the wonderful set, the quality of the musical performances and the strength of the original score, this is a great shame. Why do the ENO indulge this stuff? Dave Spart come back- all is forgiven ….

  7. Uh-oh, I have tickets to see it tomorrow night, I am torn now after reading what you have to say about it!

  8. Penny Says:

    I though Mark Stone played each of his incarnations of Maximilian with relish, though I hated Cocambo (sp?), annoying and wooden are the two words that spring to mind. What was the point of that character?

    Even though Alex Jennings (very, very good) was on stage practically the entire time, most of it was in silence standing quietly at the side, which seemed a huge shame to have the most assured performer sidelined.

    The Old Lady was certainly good comic value, but where was she meant to be from? I thought she was Spanish, but was then subsequently told she was a daughter of a Pope, a Polish Pope, eh?

    Marnie Breckrenridge sang the hell out of “Glitter and Be Gay” and totally deserved the applause at the end. Toby Spence performed very well and sang beautifully, but seemed a bit aloof, to me at least.

    And why don’t all theatre productions have credit sequences, beats having to pay £4.50 for a programme?

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