REVIEW: CANDIDE, English National Opera, St Martin s Lane

PUBLISHED: 14:26 08 July 2008 | UPDATED: 15:11 07 September 2010

Four star rating Leonard Bernstein s wickedly subversive operetta Candide is one of those musical near-misses that graze the purlieus of genius but don t quite get there. Choked with wisdom, wit

REVIEW: CANDIDE, English National Opera, St Martin's Lane

Four star rating

Leonard Bernstein's wickedly subversive operetta Candide is one of those musical near-misses that graze the purlieus of genius but don't quite get there.

Choked with wisdom, wit and death-defying tunes, it's too clever for its own good. This is why, ever since it premiered in 1956, it has

had endless rewrites/ adaptations/reinventions to make it work. And none of them quite do.

But the reinvention now playing at the ENO is the best I've seen. The brilliant staging by Canadian director Robert Carsen doesn't solve the incoherence of the second act - where Bernstein's pen runs away with itself - but it does leave you gasping with the sheer virtuosity of its showmanship.

The big idea behind this show is that, although the piece sets Voltaire's famous story of a young innocent buffeted into the realisation that life is neither good nor bad but riddled with compromise, it was intended by Bernstein and his collaborators as a veiled indictment of the smug self-righteousness of McCarthyite America in the 1950s.

So what Carsen does is strip away the veil.

Voltaire's imagined land Westphalia becomes West-Failure - a sweeping survey of America in all its arrogance and awfulness from the 1950s to the present day.

The events of Candide's journey to wisdom become events of modern history - played out in cathode ray colours on a set designed like an enormous TV screen.

American apologists - and some Americans - may find this heavy-handed. But it isn't. Carsen's touch is playful, sharp. His story-telling gets confused in act II but that's surrendering to the inevitable.

And he's assembled an extraordinary cast that sells the show like a true company of stars.

Hot young British tenor of the moment, Toby Spence, was born to play Candide and does so with heart-breaking charm.

Anna Christy plays the worldy Cunegonde like something out of Desperate Housewives, tossing off her dog-pitch coloratura with off-the-shoulder venom.

And Alex Jennings is so accomplished in the multiple roles of Voltaire/Pangloss, I don't know whether to call him a singing-actor or acting-singer. Either way, he's a class act.

And for him alone, you should see this show before its absurdly short run closes on July 12.

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