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Weekend Review

First Night Reviews

April 10, 2003

Candide

Opera
Chuck Works, Birmingham


THE great thing about Graham Vick’s promenade performances for Birmingham Opera Company is that they are so easy to leave, which a decent number duly did. At least that freed up floorspace in this old car-works in an industrial inner suburb of Birmingham in which scurrying extras barge through the audience trying, with varying success, to involve everyone in the story.

It’s a high-class pro-am set-up Vick has here: ten singers and orchestra backed by 200 locals as chorus, dancers and backstage staff. The result is a wrenchingly moving and life-affirming Candide with the mad vivacity it had in the heads of its fabulous group of creators (Bernstein, Lillian Hellman, Sondheim, Dorothy Parker et al) before it was so disastrously mucked around.

This is Voltaire meets Brecht, with no satire underplayed. If you thought Optimism was a stupid philosophy confined to the 18th century, prepare to meet it again in the hands of our old friends the Yanks.

Viewers wishing for the “balance” beloved of newspaper letter writers will be disappointed: from Dr Pangloss’s first lecture, via Billy Graham parody (“Everything that is, is good”) to rampaging soldiers and self-justifying politicians (“Are our methods legal or illegal?”), to a priest in a tank (“See the new domains of God!”), it is a pretty violent attack. But it’s not unduly limited — Voltaire took a dim view of the whole of humanity, particularly those in power: no prizes for guessing where he’d stand on current liberations.

Mark Wilde is the perfect ingénu, floppy hair, ghetto pants and baby-blue All-Star hi-tops, sweetly baffled by his misfortunes, touching in his laments and finally roused to bitter despair when he finds his beloved Cunegonde (the very game Donna Bateman) whoring herself in Venice. This is the only bit of Voltaire significantly changed, and it works a treat, set in a red hell of lust and degradation and perfectly setting up the resigned, uplifting finale.

Andrew Slater carries the show as the narrator and Pangloss in his various avatars, spitting out his bitter songs while remaining genuinely comic. But this really is that abused term, a true company event, from Yannis Thavoris’s inventive designs to the punchy orchestra under Stuart Stratford and the tangoing extras.

Total opera, full of anger, disgust, great music that has rarely sounded so fresh, and the far from simple joys of being alive; absolutely unmissable.

Box office: 0121-440 3838

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