July 1, 2008 / 12:28 AM / 10 years ago

Provocative "Candide" hits London, divides critics

LONDON (Reuters) - A provocative production of Leonard Bernstein’s musical “Candide” has come to London and sharply divided the critics.

Based on the satirical classic by the 18th-century writer and philosopher Voltaire, Robert Carsen and Ian Burton’s version of the operetta sets much of the action in 1950s America, where technological advances and victory in war engendered unbounded confidence.

The Westphalia of the original becomes “West Failure,” the auto-da-fe scene features dancing Ku Klux Klan members, Cunegonde becomes a diamond-laden Marilyn Monroe figure and Candide falls victim to a greedy Texas oil baron.

But it also tackles the contemporary world, including a scene where world leaders George Bush, Tony Blair, Silvio Berlusconi, Jacques Chirac and Vladimir Putin perform a drunken dance dressed only in their underwear.

And the closing number, “We Must Make Our Garden Grow,” is sung against a giant backdrop of oil slicks, forest fires, over-crowded refugee camps and melting ice caps.

Just as Voltaire sought to ridicule Leibniz’s theory of optimism by testing his characters with natural disasters, war and religious persecution, Bernstein set out to question modern America, and in particular McCarthyism.

Carsen updated the 1950s version for the 21st century, underlining the lasting appeal of Voltaire’s masterpiece, which became a bestseller when it first appeared in 1759.

Now showing at London’s English National Opera, the work originally performed at Theatre du Chatelet in Paris has drawn mixed reviews.

“Carsen’s sardonic but overstrained take on the tale ... is a horrible mixture of scattergun and sledgehammer: too many targets, too many ‘topical’ poor-taste one-liners, far too little subtlety,” wrote Richard Morrison in the Times.

He awarded the show two out of five stars.

Edward Seckerson of the Independent gave it four, saying: “Half a century after being eviscerated by its producers and misunderstood by its audiences, Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Candide’ has Robert Carsen and Ian Burton to thank for its sharpest and most flamboyant reincarnation yet.”

The Telegraph’s Rupert Christiansen argued that the piece was 20 minutes too long, but added: “This is a brilliantly slick and accomplished show, without doubt the best production of a musical that ENO has mounted.”

“Candide” is on at the London Coliseum until July 12.


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