West Green Opera, 21 July 2018
According to the pre-event announcement from somebody at the front of the stalls, West Green Opera are one of only three permitted staged productions of Candide in the UK during this ‘Bernstein 100’ anniversary year. If so, that is quite an achievement for one of the lesser known summer opera venues. But West Green Opera are already looking forward and upward, this year featuring the first appearence of a smart new, albeit commercially loaned, opera house construction trialling a possible site for a more permanent addition to West Green House, a few miles east of Basingstoke. Leased from the National Trust, the gardens and the summer opera season have both blossemed in recent years, and their ambitions are clearly not yet satisfied. The earlier opera venue was in a tent blocking the view of the house elevation pictured below.
The new opera house is beyond the ha-ha in the corner of an adjoining field. It is much larger than its earlier incarnation, and they have yet to build an audience large enough to fill it completely, at least for this performance of Candide. But this new accommodation is certainly an improvement on the previous tent, although one of the hottest days of the year did test audience, and presumably, cast stamina somewhat. The back-stage provision is a vast improvement on the earlier Heath Robinson affair, and the stage and orchestra area is much larger.
Leonard Bernstein’s Candide is a curious affair, caught in the cross-fire between traditional, albeit modern, opera and the world of musical theatre. There are a surprising number of traditional opera elements, some going back to the 17th/18th century, including da capo arias, and the use of orchestral colour to amplify, or to counter, the sung words. This production, directed and designed by Richard Studer, using the 1999 National Theatre version by John Caird, with a completly rewritten text, reinforces the musical theatre aspects, with singing and acting styles very much in line with the West End musical tradition. For me, one of the most disturbing aspects of this was in the over-use of vocal vibrato of a type that I find particularly unfortunate, not least for the havoc that it wreaks with such matters as intonation and accuracy of pitch. Even singers that I had previously liked in early music performances (albeit some years ago), where vibrato is a big Non-No, were wobbling away to their hearts content.
Having got that off my chest, the production and performance was otherwise very well conceived, well sung and acted and commendably well staged, with slick movement between the many sections and complicated story lines, involving many different locations. A large cast, considering the scale of West Green Opera, involved around 16 actor/singers (six as an ensemble chorus), many taking more than one role, and a house orchestra of 16 players, conducted with commendable style and elegance by Jonathan Lyness. The singers were unfortunately heavily amplified, far more than was neccessary, if, indeed, any such aid was needed for professional opera singers, perhaps reflecting the style of musical theatre where this is commonplace. On this occasion however, it did put the relationship between singers and the orchestra out of balance.
Principal amongst the singer/actors was Ben McAteer switching effortlessly between Voltaire/Pangloss (by putting on or taking off a pair of glasses)). His role as narrator was key to the success of the production, and his singing was also impressive. Fflur Wyn took the part of Cunegonde with Robin Bailey in the title role and Katherine Marriott as the Old Lady and Baroness. Johnny Herford, Nicholas Morton, Peter Brathwaite, Joseph Doody, David Horton, and Jonathan Cooke shared about 19 roles between them, with Jane Holesworth as Queen of Eldorado. The helter-skelter delivery of some very clever lines and thoughtful philosphy from Voltaire’s original text included such gems as “Lisbon harbour was created by God so that James could drown in it”.
The instrumentalists were very impressive in some tricky passages, with particular cudos to percusionist Jeremy Little who had a busy time. Others who featured prominently included cellist Andrew Fuller, Rachel Harwood-White, oboe, Katie Pearson, harp.
One of the joys of West Green is the gardens, sumptuously lit after the performances.