Wednesday, July 16, 2008


Always a girl who wants to try new things (within reason), I thought I wander off to the opera, but could I find anyone to go with me? Well no...most people looked at me as if I were daft in the head. It's not that outlandish an idea is it? Anyway, having enjoyed Alex Jennings in Present Laughter, I thought I'd make the most of a rare singing role and see him in Candide, by Leonard Bernstein at the ENO in London. And yes, I had to go by myself, oh well, it's cheaper I suppose.

Up I get on Saturday morning and wonder why on earth everything seems in such sharp focus at this ungodly time, and then I remember, I forgot to take my contact lenses out the night before! I dimly remember the optician telling me that if I did this I shouldn't attempt to remove the lenses myself, I should either go to the opticians or the eye hospital to get them to do it otherwise my eyeballs would explode and dribble down my face. Not wanting to spend all day at eye casualty (which brings to mind a horrible vision of a waiting room of people with things protruding from eye sockets) I squirted some saline into my eye and rubbed gently, which is all the optician would have done anyway, and out popped the lenses pretty easily, eye ball still in one piece and still in my socket thankfully. Oh well it's a glasses day today then.

The ENO is based at the Coliseum in London and it's lovely, it looks like a proper theatre with gilt and statues.
Yes, I know I'm an idiot, but the surroundings were so lovely that I couldn't gloss over them with no comment. A 360 degree virtual tour of the auditorium can be found here.

The set is a huge proscenium filling 50's TV set, and the overture plays over a jaunty 50's style credit sequence which I loved! Why don't all plays have animated credits? Then the images of booming 1950's America take over, Elvis Presley, JFK, white picket fences, it's easy to imagine the post war optimism of that era and how infectious it was.
Then a Voltaire (Alex Jennings) in 18th century period costume walks out onto the platform in front of the TV and begins the story of Candide (Toby Spence) who was cast out of his home in West Failure (the White House) and away from his true love Cunegonde (Marnie Breckinridge) and forced to trudge the world, but doing so incredibly optimistically, for he slavishly remains true to his tutor Dr Pangloss' (Alex Jennings again) philosophy that "all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds". And er, that's about it. The plot is simply Candide being optimistic and searching for Cunegonde, and no one ever dies properly, they keep coming back to life improbably, but I don't suppose opera's are noted for their true to life verite outlook.
On his travels, he meets Anabaptist's, one buttocked Old Ladies and almost fatally the House Committee on Un-American Activities, with a jaunty chorus of KKK, no really. Cunegonde's family is killed and she is left for dead by the invading Eastphalians, after being nursed back to health by a kindly farmer, she makes her way to the big city where she beguiles, OK, seduces two opposing film producers and they set her up as a starlet in the Marilyn Monroe mould, to the extent that "Glitter And Be Gay" is an homage to Marilyn's "Diamonds Are a Girls Best Friend".

Candide "rescues" Cunegonde by shooting dead the two producers and they then along with an Old Lady with only one buttock, they escape to the New World.

The music is glorious and the lyrics are extremely witty and funny and the singing I did find impressive, Toby Spence has a warm rich voice and Marnie Breckenridge brought the house down with "Glitter And Be Gay", but the thing about operatic singing is that it's sometimes hard to make out the what they're saying, especially as I'm not familiar with the story or the music. By the time you realise you didn't recognise what was said, you've missed the surtitle and then you miss the next sung line because you've only just stopped trying to make out the surtitle.

Beverly Klein (The Old Lady) and Alex Jennings don't have that problem because they aren't opera singers (just plain old normal singers, but even when compared to opera singers, very good singers) so you can make out their lyrics easier.

Toby Spence was lovely, he sang wonderfully, but seemed a little aloof, probably because none of the characters really came to the front of the stage, they mostly stayed quite well back at the middle or back of the stage, which meant that they didn't engage very well with the audience. No doubt why Alex Jennings got such praise for his engaging presence, you have to be if you're teetering on the edge of the orchestra pit.

While Alex was on stage most of the time as either Voltaire or Dr Pangloss it was mostly standing at either side of the TV frame as Voltaire waiting for his next piece of narration. He was a nerdy sounding Pangloss and a snarly, rough comic Martin. His was the most assured performance along with Beverly Klein, who was the funniest character by far.

Her turn as a Vegas showgirl was no doubt funny, but I only saw a few feathers on top of her head, because the director in his wisdom decided to place spectators onstage, unfortunately right in front me.
The front row is a lovely place to sit except because of the frame, you can't see the stage floor, so if any character is lying down, you can't see them. It seemed poor Candide was gloomily serenading his own feet at more than one point. Also I always feel slightly uncomfortable sitting at the front, because I get afraid that the actors can see me.

When Voltaire changed into Pangloss, he would jump up onto the stage and then remove his Voltaire costume to reveal the blazer and tie of Pangloss. Every time Pangloss made an appearance his costume got dirtier and more worn, till by the end he looked quite bedraggled.

The only dull note of the entire show was the five deposed Kings section, nobody interacts with them, they just sing and look faintly disturbing in their masks and swimwear, Pangloss and Candide just shrug at each other after their song as if to say, what was that all about? At this point I got a bit bored and started to stare at the back of Pangloss and Candide's heads, they were watching the Kings, then I moved onto watching the conductor, then the audience, and then if I leaned forward a little I could see into the orchestra pit and watch the musicians. Very interesting. I was relieved when that song was over.

Mark Stone played each incarnation of Maximilian with great relish. He looked like he thoroughly enjoyed every part, from a Mormon, to man dressed up as a character from Some Like it Hot, through to a Vegas policeman.
Marnie Breckenridge sang "Glitter and be Gay" superbly, at least to my philistine ears, I wouldn't have noticed if she mangled every second note, but I came out and hummed it (badly) for days afterwords, so it definitely left an impression. This was the high point of the show for me, the music and choreography were perfect and sentiments of the song were perfectly illustrated by Cunegonde festooning herself in jewels.

The dancers and the chorus also need kudos, the company sang fantastically and danced imaginatively and impressively. Also the Auto-da-fe song is horribly catchy, I hummed that all the way home!

I loved this show and enjoyed the performances and everyone who declined to come with me, missed a treat!

My eye on the other hand is currently red and weeping has a tendency to glue itself shut if I close it for too long, chloramphenicol is being liberally applied.