WELLS AND MILLER’S CANDIDE
A GOOPERATIVE VENTURE
As the formidable talents of Jonathan Miller and John Wells assemble for . a new production of Leonard Bernstein‘s Candide for Scottish Opera, Carol Main
Just about exactly as this issue goes to press, Leonard Bernstein, seventy this year, will arrive in Scotland for a rather special birthday present — Scottish Opera‘s new production and British premiere of his opera Candide. Working with Scottish Opera as co-directors for the first time are Old Vic Artistic Director Jonathan Miller and John Wells of Private Eye, Rude Health and ‘Denis Thatcher‘ fame, who broke from rehearsals for a Chinese lunch in Sauchiehall Street (where the noodles gave Miller visions of disentangling Dolly Parton‘s wig) and to talk about what they‘re up to. First quite definitely a musical and now more vaguely described as a ‘newly revised opera house version,‘ both Miller and Wells are happy to disperse with such labelling. although they did discuss it with Bernstein. ‘His definition ofopera is where the climaxes are sung rather
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than spoken. In this case it‘s really a matter oftreatment and we are treating it as far as,‘ stopping in mid-sentence to let Wells take over, ‘as music theatre, rather than musical. In other words we're trying to take off some ofthe showbiz glamour and make it a bit more theatrical.‘
Any ideas ofa turbulent partnership were immediately dispelled through this merging of thoughts. reinforced by their own mutual agreement that working together seems to be very easy. Fortunately, they both had the same reaction to reading the original book, Voltaire‘s witty look at the 18th Century philosophy of everything happening for the best, and also fortunately they both have the same ideas on production. ‘We talked about what we thought it was about but I always improvise my direction, often working out very
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complicated things on the spur of the moment.‘ says Miller, his co-director nodding agreement with ‘in any case it‘s more democratic that way because you‘re accepting suggestions offered by the cast. It’s very much a matter ofdiscovering things in rehearsal.‘
As is so often the case in the theatre world. their involvement with Candide came about largely as a matter ofchance. Miller was looking for something in music-theatre for the Old Vic towards the end ofthe year, Scottish Opera‘s musical director John Mauceri who has worked very closely with Bernstein asked him ifhe‘d like to do Candide, Miller said yes, ifthe text was rewritten and asked Wells ifhe’d revise the script. Events in the history of the work are more complicated. As Wells explains ‘Following the last production in 1982‘ — conducted and supervised by
John Mauceri with New York City Opera, which subsequently won him a Grammy Award for the Best Opera Recording in 1986— ‘Bernstein wanted the fullest possible score of his original piece, including numbers which weren‘t even in the original 1956 production, so that in rearranging the music, I had, to some extent, to rearrange the last version. He was looking for a less commercial showbiz approach to it and something more in the spirit of the original book. So really what I‘ve done is build a framework for the new structure of numbers, trying to make it more Voltaire — which was the first thing Jonathan asked for. The last Candide was very Broadway and I hope this one will be closer to the book and rather than apologising for Voltaire‘s jokes we actually play them and discover what‘s funny about them.‘ Broadway is certainly not done away with though. ‘Where there are quite deliberately pastiches of Broadway numbers‘, says Miller ‘we‘ve just gone hell for leather and played them as Broadway numbers. The book itself, like Bernstein‘s music, is many layers of parody and pastiche, so we’ve added yet another layer of theatrical caricature and parody as well.‘
Again, Wells is in full agreement, describing it as ‘really a cabaret opera in that it‘s addressed to the audience, to entertain the audience.‘ And with a cast which features Mark Beudert, who took the title role in the New York City Opera production, Nickolas Grace, known to British audiences through his part as Anthony Blanche in the BBC's Brideshead as Voltaire/Pan gloss and Ann Howard as the Old Lady, they will no doubt be entertained. It is, however, narrative, the story being, says Wells ‘Of a man who‘s brought up completely innocently to believe that everything is — divinely speaking — in safe hands and whatever happens it‘s for the best so there‘s no point in making any effort in trying to run your own life. It’s an idea Voltaire objected to and he really mocks it by taking his hero through all the worst things that happened in the 18th Century including an earthquake, syphilis and a series of disasters until he finally recognises truth at the end. You‘ve got to make your garden grow and no-one else will do it for you.‘
Although that almost makes Candide sound as ifit has a rather gloomy message, both Wells and Miller don‘t see it working that way. ‘I haven‘t the faintest idea what happens when people leave the theatre,‘ says Miller ‘or what sort of messages get through. I never plan tc have an effect on people. I just hope that something within that evening is coherent, energetic‘ — ‘and enjoyable‘ adds Wells— ‘and creates tension and excitement.‘ So could Candide be described as lighthearted? ‘Oh no — that promises an evening of doom‘ says Wells.
‘with terrible connotations of Flanders and Swan‘ adds Miller, ‘but it‘s not heavy-handed. It won’t be a heavy evening.‘
Candide opens on 19 May. See
Classical Music Listings.
8The List 13 — 26 May 1988