- Miles Hedley
CANDIDE by Blackheath Halls Opera
Singing an exacting aria is a tough ask on its own but to do it while clowning is surely near-impossible. Yet that is the challenge Leonard Bernstein lays down in his comic operetta Candide – and it’s a challenge the cast meets triumphantly in the annual delight that is the Blackheath Halls Opera.
To give you an idea of what the performers are up against, this updated take on Voltaire’s fabulous 1759 satire features an increasingly improbable series of coincidences and scenarios peopled by tramps, hookers, pirates, murderers, secret police, religious fundamentalists, sexual predators, crazed gamblers, depraved aristos and peacenik druggies. It’s truly bonkers.
So are many of the lyrics, which were provided by a coterie of comic giants including Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker and the incomparable Stephen Sondheim.
The music, however, is anything but – Bernstein’s glorious tunes pay homage to the original story’s 18th century setting without being parodies and they are seriously modern. And although they might owe more to Broadway than to Bizet, they demand virtuosic rigour and range-stretching skill from the performers.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the way Ellie Neate plays Candide’s true love Cunegonde, a role that requires awe-inspiring explorations of the upper reaches of the soprano’s register and exemplary comic timing. Neate is faultless in both.
Tenor Nick Pritchard is pitch-perfect as the piece’s eponymous hero, a naïve romantic who refuses to be crushed in a world of vice and cynicism even when his tutor in optimism Dr Pangloss – bass-baritone Frederick Long in fine voice – sinks into a mire of despair.
All three get some great lines. But the bulk of the laugh-out-loud comedy is reserved for baritone Matthew Kellett, wonderful as Cunegonde’s brother Maximilian in drag or leathers, and mezzo-soprano Sarah Pring as the Old Lady who almost steals the show with her cabaret turn as a superannuated vamp. I also loved tenor James Liu’s turn as a ship’s pervy captain.
Meanwhile, Trinity Laban students Hannah Leggatt-McPhee (mezzo) and baritone Adam Brown are apparently completely undaunted by this stellar company because they more than hold their own in a variety of roles ranging from an S&M dominatrix to a lurid pimp.
One of the reasons the creative team chose Candide as this year’s production was because it offers such opportunities for the traditional community chorus – which includes kids from local schools Charlton Park Academy and Greendale – to shine. And shine they do as they throw themselves full-tilt into the fun and play a key part in making a great production truly magnificent.
So too does the Blackheath Halls orchestra, a 41-strong mix of professionals, amateurs and Trinity Laban students conducted by Christopher Stark who bring Bernstein’s music to joyful life and help keep director Sebastian Harcombe’s production thundering along with infectious energy.
Two final words of praise – Elliott Squire’s elegant double-decker set might look basic but it’s a masterpiece of minimalism and multi-purpose efficiency, while Isabel Southey’s huge array of costumes are quite simply ingenious. You could say the same about the entire show, in fact.
Candide is on again at Blackheath Halls on 29 September and 1 and 2 October.