An electrifying and immersive thrill: Candide’s review of Scottish opera
The first part of the adventure was to get there. Exit the metro, pass in front of the towers and under the motorway viaduct. A quick look on Google Maps and in a patch of litter blown brush. Someone bustles next to me: “Are you looking for the opera? I am, yes: and I suppose the group of clipboard types in high-visibility tabards next to this warehouse probably mark the entrance. We are waved in: ‘Big Cock’ proclaims a graffiti-covered wall. There’s a stack of shipping containers, a makeshift bar (cold beer and Scottish pies) and a large tent space filled with drifting crowds and that restless, slightly unsteady murmur you always hear when – exceptionally for an audience opera – no one really knows what he’ve let in for.
A classic Edinburgh Festival experience, one might think: except that the Scottish Opera’s promenade production of Bernstein Candid takes place in Glasgow, while the mighty International Festival – unless Garsington’s (admittedly superb) visit Rusalka – seems to have pretty much thrown into his hand this year, at least as far as the main opera goes. Certainly nothing in Edinburgh seemed half as intriguing as this outdoor staging by Jack Furness: by a curious coincidence, the director of this magnificent Rusalka here producing the Scottish operatic event of the summer across the country.
No matter: Candid pulled you in and took you out, three hours later, sore feet but with all senses sparkling. This site-specific way of doing opera was pioneered by the late Graham Vick’s Birmingham Opera Company. For Vick it was an end in itself, and the atmosphere of fierce, almost cult-like commitment that made his Birmingham productions so transgressive was much less noticeable in Glasgow. But there are other advantages to this way of doing things – creating a moving, raw opera that redefines its purpose from moment to moment (although the tightness of the whole, even when the singers were in their early twenties meters from the orchestra, was striking).
Scottish Opera, like Vick, has recruited a major community company, bolstered by the professional choir and integrated into the audience, producing an electrifying and immersive thrill as the singing suddenly engulfs you from all sides. In Birmingham, sprawling problematic pieces like those of Stockhausen mittwoch
and Tippett The icebreaker became compelling and vital when blasted, freed from theatrical conventions, and dropped into its natural form. Candid
– a theatrical car crash with an indestructible score – falls squarely into this category.
And yes – done like this, Candid almost works, generating a carnival-like sense of occasion and a joyful, rushing momentum. Furness pulled sight gags like straw as the orchestra (under Stuart Stratford) went full throttle to Bernstein’s score, and the cast leapt from stage to articulated truck to inflatable boat, clutching sheep plush while video screens clarified the plot in the language of emojis. There were riot police, chat show hosts and fornicating priests. A sturgeon-like ‘freedom minister’ smugly presided over a public execution and Boris Johnson’s severed head was paraded on a pike. It drew cheers, as it would no doubt have done in Glyndebourne too (it will be much harder to get a Truss or Starmer to laugh quickly).
William Morgan was Candide: a wide-eyed man-child, first seen holding his Millennium Falcon toy and singing with undiminished freshness as his wounds grew bloodier. Cunégonde (Paula Sides) pulled seven bells from a stack of designer boutiques before Instagramming to nail the coloratura in “Glitter and Be Gay”: upper register like glitter. Ronald Samm’s Dr. Pangloss was a talkative barker in a crimson zoot suit, suave without even trying. But the picture of the night – and there were plenty to choose from – should be the tall Susan Bullock channeling Joan Rivers as an old lady and dancing a one-woman tango on a picnic table as she hung out and rumbled his way through ‘I’m easily assimilated’. Madam, you said it.
In Holland Park, the Charles Court Opera production of John Savournin HMS apron applied a dazzling coat of paint to the old battle wagon, but otherwise kept things in navy shape and fashion: a neat and affectionate mise-en-scène with an athletic, well-drilled cast putting on the humor in relief. Savournin himself delivered another star trick as Captain Corcoran: he can create an entire comic character with a raise of an eyebrow, but Apron also shows his beautiful mahogany baritone. It was also a treat to hear Sir Joseph Porter (Richard Burkhard) sing that musically: purr and walk away. Lucy Schaufer (Little Buttercup, as Wren) and Llio Evans (Josephine) brought more subtlety and likability to their roles than is often the case. G&S doesn’t always have to be reinvented: a lot can be accomplished with skill, imagination and a bit of spitting and polishing.