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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

What's the use of producer opera?

By Norman Lebrecht / July 2, 2008

Few operas in recent memory have split opinion as clinically as Robert Carsen’s production of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide which opened last week at the Coliseum. The morning after, ENO’s marketing department rushed out a selective set of press quotes that proclaimed the show a hoot and a hit. But most critics that I saw on opening night were sitting in an uncomfortable place, trapped between the naive enjoyment of young audience members around them and their own aesthetic dismay at the liberties the producer was taking with a work that defines a world power at a seminal moment in history.

There are two operas that bookend America’s change of mood in the decade after the Second World War and both are coincidentally to be seen on the London stage. Kurt Weill’s Street Scene, coming up at the Young Vic on July 17, is set on the stoop of a 1946 New York brownstone where immigrants of diverse backgrounds resolve their troubles in the melting pot of the American dream. The New World, for Weill, was the panacea to most mortal woes.

Ten years on, in 1956, Bernstein’s Candide delivered a character sketch of America that was pessimistic to the point of mutually assured destruction, not so much a satirical take on Voltaire’s parable of innocence as a cynical dismissal of America’s role in the world, its pretensions to improve the human condition.

What took place in between can be read in any history book. After the 1945 victory parades came the Cold War, the fear of enemies within, the show trials of McCarthyism and, beyond the earthly limits of nuclear power, the space race. As Candide prances about declaiming his belief that ‘all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds’, Bernstein’s music and a text by many hands inform us that life is short and happiness ephemeral. We might as well Glitter and Be Gay for we could all be toast tomorrow.

Seldom has art provided so exact a snapshot of a nation in flux as these two operas of post-War America. Every aria in Street Scene - which includes the finest vocal sextet by any composer since Cosi fan tutte – contains nuances of social mobility that no historian can hope to supply. Every scene change in Candide takes us deeper into the heart of generational warfare, the transitional mid-Fifties when politicians lost their authority and parents saw teenagers reject dutiful deference in favour of Elvis Presley and Rebel Without a Cause.

Neither Street Scene nor Candide is strictly an opera in the Cosi sense of the term, both pitching for the Broadway audience. Weill, a refugee from Hitler’s Berlin, had put classical acclaim behind him while Bernstein, the son of Russian immigrants, was just trying to pay the bills. His passport had been confiscated by the State Department and no orchestra would employ a bleeding-heart leftist like him as music director. Candide was his escape into a fantasy world where Richard Nixon was not US vice-president and an artist with a conscience could escape a Congressional subpoena for un-American activities.

Both used the populist devices of musical theatre to put over arguments that could not find a voice in other media. Weill died while writing about apartheid, in Lost in the Stars. Bernstein’s next work was West Side Story, the street-war love tragedy. Opera in the 1950s had a voice in the mainstream conversation. It had something important to say about the state of the world.

Which may be what makes Robert Carsen’s Candide so contentious. After its Paris opening at Christmas 2006, La Scala cancelled its share of the three-way co-production after seeing world leaders – including George W Bush, Tony Blair and Silvio Berlusconi – wearing swimming trunks on stage in national colours. Milan recanted when the Canadian producer agreed to eliminate references to paedophile priests, but the Scala reception was decidedly mixed and ENO must have thought long and hard before going through with its contracted share in the triple entente.

Part of the problem is innate to the script. The original Candide libretto was written by America’s most humourless dramatist, Lilian Hellman, with lyrics by a poet, Richard Wilbur, who had never penned a lyric before. It bombed both out of town and on Broadway, amid rumours that the FBI had infiltrated the orchestra.

Eighteen years later, Harold Prince commissioned a makeover by Hugh Wheeler with fresh lyrics by Stephen Sondheim that stand out of the body of the text like cardinals in a strip club. Bernstein did a further revision for New York City Opera in 1982 and approved a fourth rewrite by John Wells for Jonathan Miller’s 1988 Scottish Opera staging. This is not a work in which the words are sacrosanct. Anyone who brings it up to date can assume he has the composer’s blessing.

What Carsen does, however, is change the tone so drastically that it comes to suggest something that was never intended. Bernstein’s Candide is deliciously bitter about a land of callous rulers, academic fools, greedy investors and spiritual emptiness. The Carsen version is an anti-American manifesto in which Westphalia is spelled West Failure and every second gag is a swipe at the Iraq war. America, in this mutation, is the worst of all possible worlds and we, the triple entente audience in London, Paris and Milan, should count ourselves jolly lucky to be living so far away, in high moral Europe.

That’s not what Bernstein meant. Each and every one of his revisions claws back bits of faith in a Dream to which he eagerly re-subscribed when John F. Kennedy beat Nixon to the presidency in 1960. Bernstein was a guest at Kennedy’s White House, a Candide at Camelot. He believed in America, and its capacity for self-renewal.

Carsen believes, if anything, in a post-modern nihilism where visual appeal overrides reason. He papers over holes in the plot with gay waiters, corrupt oilmen, Vegas brides, every movie cliché in the book. The staging shifts from Eisenhower era to Kennedy and back again, unsure which period it inhabits. The distinction is critical, for it is the difference between fear and hope, the very point on which Candide is predicated.

It should not be too much to expect ENO to require intellectual clarity from a star producer (as the higher-paid directors are fashionably designated). No such demand was apparently made. Its absence undermines the credibility not just of this Candide, but of producer-driven opera as a whole. Once upon a time, not that long ago, opera asked dangerous questions that defined the state of the world. Nowadays, post-modern producers palm us off with gags. What’s the Use? clamour the chorus in Candide. What, indeed.

To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent at scena dot org

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



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