Opera review: Candide, Her Majesty’s Theatre

A joyous musical confection and a colourful celebration of self-discovery.
Candide. Four singers lined up. In the middle are a man in blue shirt and shorts with red braces and a woman in a green strappy 1950s type house dress with a little apron. On either side are two women - one all in orange, including her glasses frames and a wig, and the other the same but in yellow.

A comic operetta in three acts by Leonard Bernstein, based on Voltaire’s philosophical tale Candide ou l’Optimisme from 1759, Candide first opened in Boston in 1956. Although not a hit initially (and that’s being polite…) the revised version, with input from musical theatre legend Stephen Sondheim, opened in New York in December 1973 and was met with hearty applause. This version has played widely ever since. 

Candide’s lively and irreverent score proved that Bernstein had a real talent for the stage musical, as would be proven beyond doubt just a year later with the sensational success of West Side Story. It’s no coincidence that Sondheim was the librettist for that too. Together, these two works did much to break down the long-held distinctions between the high art of opera and the popular art of the stage musical.

Here in Adelaide in a joint production of State Opera South Australia and the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra (ASO) with the team at State Theatre, along with the wonderful State Opera Chorus and the singers from the Elder Conservatorium, Candide was a joyous confection that thrilled Her Majesty’s Theatre for just four performances over three days.

With the orchestra and singers filling the stage, the action all took place in a narrow strip at the front so you could almost reach out to the cast as they sang and died, sobbed and sighed. Presented in a colourful concert version, with no staging and minimal props, this production really highlighted the absurdity of this most comic operetta and played up to that with humour and physicality. The delightfully outrageous costumes by Brendan de la Hay really captured that vaudeville aesthetic. 

The principals were all excellent and embraced the pantomime ethos with enthusiasm. Alexander Lewis and Annie Aitken were delightfully endearing as Candide and Cunegonde. Musically they were very good with the warm tones of tenor Lewis belying his cheeky grin and schoolboy attire. And Aitken was especially delightful in Cunegonde’s magnificent aria where her voice just reached for the heavens. Her controlled coloratura showed her maturity as an operatic singer.

Musical theatre star Caroline O’Connor stole everyone’s heart as the unpredictable Old Lady who is ‘a veteran but still hot’. Adelaide’s own cabaret darling Hans stole the show as he strutted (and, yes, even sang!) as Maximilian. The vision of Hans in the huge pink wig in Act 2 will be hard to forget!

Co-director Mitchell Butel, artistic director of State Theatre and an accomplished actor and director, excelled as Dr Pangloss, who also acts as Narrator throughout the show. In a wonderfully of-the-moment turn of phrase, Butel welcomed the audience with ‘Ladies and gentlemen and those in-between and beyond’. Butel directed a similar Candide in Sydney a few years ago, with a few of the same cast, and that depth of experience has clearly informed this delightful production.

The other roles were filled by many well-known names and most of them took on multiple roles as the misfit band of friends as the story romps along, taking Candide on his journey of discovery from the old world, and old ways, to new and more exciting realms. 

The choreography by co-director Amy Campbell kept things moving along at a good pace, as did the clear direction. The confined stage space rather limited what could be done, but they made the most of every opportunity.

Originally written to satirise philosophical optimism and then reworked to comment on the political issues of the 1950s, this production highlighted a journey of self-discovery rather than politics or philosophy. More than anything, it’s a tale about finding joy and that is something we should all embrace.

The ASO and State Opera Chorus, along with the singers from the Elder Conservatorium, were excellent under the always exuberant conductor Anthony Hunt (‘waving his arms about’ as the Old Lady said at one point) and acting concertmaster of the ASO, Cameron Hill. The overture was played beautifully, establishing that this was very much about the music and not just the slapstick performances. 

Read: Opera review: Tosca, Margaret Court Arena

Candide is a whimsical golden age musical full of adventure, love, glitter and some serious silliness. What more could we ask for on a chilly night in Adelaide? 

Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide

Presented by State Opera SA and State Theatre Company SA with State Opera Chorus, Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, and Elder Conservatorium of Music
Music: Leonard Bernstein
Book: by Hugh Wheeler, after Voltaire 

Lyrics: Richard Wilbur with additional lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, John Latouche, Lillian Hellmann, Dorothy Parker and Leonard Bernstein 
Orchestrations: Leonard Bernstein and Hershy Kay 
Musical Continuity and Additional Orchestrations: John Mauceri
Conductor: Anthony Hunt
Co-Director: Mitchell Butel

Co-Director and Choreographer: Amy Campbell
Set Realiser: Ailsa Paterson
Costumer Designer: Brendan de la Hay
Lighting Designer: Gavin Norris
Sound Designer: Adam Budgen
Cast: Alexander Lewis, Annie Aitken, Taylah Johns, Mitchell Butel, Hans, Caroline O’Connor, John Longmuir, Michaela Burger, Rosie Hosking, Ezra Juanta, Rod Schultz

Candide was performed 23-25 May 2024.

Dr Diana Carroll is a writer, speaker, and reviewer based in Adelaide. Her work has been published in newspapers and magazines including the Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, Woman's Day, and B&T. Writing about the arts is one of her great passions.