Bernstein’s Candide is the operetta that ought to work, but never quite does. Voltaire’s featherlight cakewalk through human misery, set to tunes from the West Side Story guy: what’s not to like? And what can be so wrong with its twinkle-toed score that the combined rewriting efforts (and this is not remotely the full list) of Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker and Stephen Sondheim have all failed to make it work as theatre? For my money it’s the ending. Voltaire coolly pricks his own bubble and tells us to get on with tending our gardens. Bernstein, the all-American idealist, just can’t, and he kills the whole thing dead with ‘Make Our Garden Grow’, a Hallmark moral drenched in gooey musical uplift. Unless you can solve that, Candide simply can’t be fixed.
But Welsh National Opera’s new production got astonishingly close. It’s unclear whose ideas came first – the director James Bonas or the French animator and video designer Grégoire Pont – but together, they’re dynamite. The orchestra was on stage, with Pont’s animations projected on a translucent curtain: a cheerful, constantly evolving storybook world that doubled as set, special effects and even a few of the minor characters. It’s hard to convey just how utterly delightful it was – how perfectly Pont’s lively chalkboard figures complemented the cartoon bustle of Bernstein’s music, and counterpointed the gleeful parade of atrocities that makes up the story. (We were emailed a list of content warnings pre-show; that the work, for example, would include a representation of the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Too soon?)
Anyway, the live cast acted around the animation, occasionally slipping behind the screen to become part of the 2D picture – prompting gasps of delight from the audience.