It isn’t only priests who struggle with hard questions about human suffering: 18th-century philosophers were exercised about the subject too. And one of them, Voltaire, made it the basis for his novella Candide which, perhaps surprisingly, turned out to be a comic romp: a satire on the argument that everything in life is for the best.
Still more surprising, though, is that two centuries later Candide was adapted as a (somewhat intellectual) Broadway operetta, with a score by Leonard Bernstein and words by successive librettists who came and went without ever quite cracking the problem of turning philosophy into entertainment.
The result is a flawed masterpiece that’s over-long and over-written, although with enough mastery for many opera companies to be running it in this Bernstein centenary year. Among them, the high-impact (if small-scale) production at West Green House, Hampshire, stands proud.
West Green is a more modest venture than some of the other country house operas but the most enchanting, with gardens that rival the productions for spectacle. This year there have been changes, with a relocated, larger theatre; and the new Candide – directed by Richard Studer and conducted by Jonathan Lyness – positively celebrates the space, with a production that is both exuberant and resourceful (what it does with little more than half a dozen wooden trunks for props is impressive). It confronts the challenge that this kind of driven, dancing repertoire presents to opera companies with a relentless energy that sees the piece through both its highs (when the music takes wing) and lows (when the plot becomes like lecture notes). Were Bernstein still alive to see it, he’d have danced too.
Dance routines have never been a selling-point for Pelléas et Mélisande, Debussy’s gossamer-soft opera that inhabits a mysterious world of shadows and elusive truths. It tends to work best in productions that don’t weigh the story down with detail. A common criticism of the Stefan Herheim show running this summer at Glyndebourne is that it is too fussy, choking the already loaded symbolism of the piece with extra (and unhelpful) incident. A stripped-down semi-staging Glyndebourne was brought to London for the Proms – playing in costume but with almost no props. The orchestra is placed centrally onstage, as it deserves to be in an opera where the vocal lines are rarely so alluring as the instrumental ones.
Having the London Philharmonic as the orchestra was a luxury, and it played well for conductor Robin Ticciati. John Chest’s Pelléas was too much of a wimp for my tastes. But Christina Gansch’s Mélisande was captivating. And the scary eloquence of Christopher Purves’s all-too-human Golaud stole the show.
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