At the time of year when Edinburgh is considered to be the epicentre of Scottish culture, Scottish opera has just staged the not to be missed musical event of the season in Glasgow with its inventive, invigorating production of Candide. The company has pedigree with Leonard Bernstein’s flawed masterpiece: the definitive “Scottish Opera version” was created with the maestro’s protege, John Mauceri, at the helm and Bernstein himself overseeing in Glasgow in the late 80s.
If that was a thoroughly traditional affair, all big wigs and bigger frocks, then Jack Furness’s brilliant and bold new production takes an entirely fresh look at the piece. Staged as a promenade performance in a marquee in the company’s production studios – the setting for last summer’s memorable Falstaff – this production reimagines Candide for the social media age. It’s a brilliant conceit: the glib superficiality of Dr Pangloss’s philosophy that “this is the best of all possible worlds” is a perfect fit for the vacuous nature of an age of reality TV and Instagram celebrity. At the same time, the series of disasters that befall the hapless Candide and his companions – war, religious persecution, slavery and violence – remain all too relevant today.
This is a totally immersive production in which the action takes place around, above and through the audience, the visual focus shifting as the action moves from one location to the next. Particularly powerful is the use of the community choir, flashmob style, blurring the boundaries between performers and audience. Turning the narrator figure (intended to be the author Voltaire) into a series of TV anchors and journalists works superbly, as the action is captured in real time by the video cameras of the press.
The visual spectacle of the production is underwritten by some fantastic musicality – no mean feat given that the Orchestra of Scottish Opera is fixed in position as the action romps across the space. With the use of cameras and a couple of assistant directors, conductor Stuart Stratford ensures the action moves forward with unerring pace. He’s aided by a series of superbly sung and characterised performances from his cast. Ronald Samm is a flamboyantly scarlet-suited Dr Pangloss, as much a celebrity as the young people he instructs: William Morgan’s wide-eyed Candide; Paula Sides’ slinky Cunegonde (whose set piece Glitter and Be Gay is a tour de force); and Dan Shelvey’s seductively androgynous Maximilian. Susan Bullock and Jamie MacDougall have a lot fun as the old woman and a rogues gallery of senior men respectively while Lea Shaw is suitably coquettish as the wily servant Paquette.
For all its humour and witty one-liners, Candide’s subject matter is strong stuff – sensitively handled here, although not glossed over. The result is a performance that is witty and engaging but ultimately also deeply moving.
• At Scottish Opera Production Studios, Glasgow, until 20 August.